Puc sets career-high to carry UTEP into C-USA tourney

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Puc sets career-high to carry UTEP into C-USA tourney

Zuzanna Puc set a new career-high with 27 points against FIU on Thursday, March 1 at the Don Haskins Center.

Zuzanna Puc set a new career-high with 27 points against FIU on Thursday, March 1 at the Don Haskins Center.

Gaby Velasquez

Zuzanna Puc set a new career-high with 27 points against FIU on Thursday, March 1 at the Don Haskins Center.

Gaby Velasquez

Gaby Velasquez

Zuzanna Puc set a new career-high with 27 points against FIU on Thursday, March 1 at the Don Haskins Center.

Jeremy Carranco, Sports Editor

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After battling an early season injury, Zuzanna Puc finally had her breakout game as a Miner.

The sophomore set a new career-high with 27 points to help the UTEP women’s basketball team clinch a spot in the Conference USA Tournament with an 86-70 win over Florida International on Thursday night at the Don Haskins Center.

Puc injured her foot before the start of the 2017-18 campaign and missed the first two games of the regular season. The undiagnosed injury gave off hints that the Poznan, Poland native was going to miss the entire season before she willed herself back onto the court in a win against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Nov. 24.

“I think anybody that knows our team, knows that Zuzanna (Puc) played a really good game tonight but that she’s capable of doing that, she’s extremely talented,” said UTEP head coach Kevin Baker on Puc’s performance. “I feel good for her because this year (season) has been a real challenge because of her injury and trying to play with pain.”

The win for the Miners (15-13, 6-9 C-USA) also snapped a five-game losing skid, all five decided by seven points or fewer.

UTEP opened the second quarter on an 8-0 run that gave the team a 21-point lead (32-11) with 7:18 remaining in the frame. FIU was able to respond with a 10-0 run of its own over the next two minutes to reduce cut the Miner lead to 11 (32-21).

The Panthers (7-21, 4-11 C-USA) got as close as 45-42 with 6:34 to play in the third quarter but came no closer, dropping their ninth game in their last 10.

FIU was led by Junior Kristian Hudson who scored 20 points off an 8-16 (50 percent) shooting night from the floor.

“We played well the whole game because even when they made a run on us, we would respond,” Baker said. “This team has been resilient all year so it feels nice to see them get back on their feet with a win. They deserve so many of them that have slipped away.”

Junior Najala Howell set her career-high in rebounds with 16 as the Miners outrebounded the visiting Panthers 51-31 in the win.

“I can’t say enough about Najala Howell and her 16 rebounds and so many other things that go unnoticed on a stat sheet,” Baker said.

UTEP dominated down low in rebounding but was also able to score, notching a 44-26 advantage over the Panthers in the paint.

The 86 total points scored set a season-high for the Miners in regulation.

“We knew how important this game was for us,” Puc said. “Somewhere in the back of my head I felt it, I knew we needed to play well if we wanted to go to the tournament (C-USA).”

Puc attributed to the 31 bench points scored by the Miners with her 27 while sophomore Roeshonda Patterson tallied four.

“It’s hard and everybody who has had an injury knows it’s tough to play with one but sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself for you team,” Puc said.

Both Puc and Howell also recorded double-doubles as Howell scored 11 and Puc rebounded the ball 11 times to go with her career-high.

The Miners will now host the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Saturday with a chance to move up in the conference standings, in hopes of a better seed in the tournament.

UTEP is currently in a four-way tie for ninth place with North Texas, UTSA and Old Dominion.

“This is what we do this for,” Baker said on clinching a spot in the C-USA tourney. “We deserve to go, we’re a good team, we’ve just let a few games get away from us.”

Tip-off against Western Kentucky is set for 1 p.m. in the Don Haskins Center.

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