UTEP women’s basketball looks to take the next step with young stars

UTEP+point+guard+Katia+Gallegos+drives+to+the+basket+drawing+two+Monarch+players+to+defend+her+versus+Old+Dominion+Feb+8.

Michael Cuviello

UTEP point guard Katia Gallegos drives to the basket drawing two Monarch players to defend her versus Old Dominion Feb 8.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

The UTEP womens basketball team is coming off a surprisingly successful 2019 season with the Miners finishing in seventh place in Conference USA with a 16-15 overall record. Unfortunately, the season ended after advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament due to the COVID-10 outbreak. 

Winning its first five games and nine out of its first 10 games, the Miners were able to work some highly touted firstyear players into the mix with very experienced leadership that exceeded expectations. When the season began, UTEP was ranked near the conference’s bottom in most prognostications following a 9-22 injury decimated season. 

Departing the Miners are its two best players from last season in four-year starter Katerina Zec and hardnosed and skilled frontcourt player Ariona Gill. Zec and Gill were the only Miner players to finish in double figures scoring last season. Both players’ size and toughness will be missed. 

Zec led the team in scoring with 13.9 points a game and 3-point percentage last season. Ending her career as UTEP’s all-time leading free-throw percentage shooter at 81% and third all-time in games started with 110. Zec also ranked in the top 10 in multiple categories, with her deft shooting culminating in making C-USA all-conference second team as a senior. 

Gill, a two-year starter as a community college transfer who had a promising first season get derailed by a leg injury after starting the first 12 games of her junior season, of which she averaged 11 points a game. Gill began the season wearing a constant leg brace for much of the early season but still started 29 games and averaged 12.9 points a game scoring. She would also finish seventh in the conference in rebounding with 8.5, continually facing much bigger lineups through the season. 

Taking the reins as the unquestioned leader for UTEP will be Franklin High graduate and all C-USA freshman team member Katia Gallegos. Setting a UTEP all-time freshman record for assists with 102, Gallegos also led the conference in assists per game with 5.7. Gallegos was fourth in the conference in steals per game with 1.7 and averaged 9.6 per games scoring. Although Gallegos was left off the preseason all-conference team, she is a favorite to achieve conference honors at the end of the season. 

Fellow sophomore Avery Crouse started 29 games last season opposite Gallegos and averaged 8 points a game on 42% shooting from the field and 33% from beyond the arc. With her solid all-around play, Crouse contributed in all areas of her game and improved as the season went on. She finished five of her final six games in double figures and will be a candidate to lead the team in scoring this season.  

Another of the trio of top freshmen from last season was Arina Khlopkova, who started four games while appearing in every game as she averaged 4 points a game.  Khlopkova averaged 14 minutes a game last season and is sure to play a more significant role this season. She had a career-high 20 points and five rebounds versus Georgia state.  

Junior forward Ariana Taylor improved in every statistical category while playing slightly less time on the floor last season. Taylor also improved her defense by getting in better shape in the prior offseason and gave the Miners toughness inside as she reduced getting in foul trouble. The previous season she had fouled out three times and could not foul out once the entire season. 

Senior Michelle Pruitt struggled with conditioning last season but has been lauded by head coach Kevin Baker for her hard work this offseason. Pruitt played in 29 games and started eight while averaging 12 minutes a game as she led the team in field goal percentage with 54%. Last season, you could see the talent there so Pruitt in better shape should impact her challenging inside play. 

Junior guard Sabine Lipe came off an injury-plagued season to appear in all 30 games giving a spark off the bench with her energetic and unselfish play. She averaged 4.7 points and two rebounds a game while averaging 16 minutes a game. If fully healthy, Lipe can continue to be a spark off the bench with her hard charging play. 

Seniors Dejanae Roebuck and Tia Bradshaw, both transfers from Hutchinson Community College, showed a brief glimpse of talent but could not get consistent minutes last season. Roebuck had a career-high of 14 versus Florida Atlantic during the regular season. Roebuck also had 13 points in 12 minutes versus Florida Atlantic in the first round of the conference tournament.  In limited shooting, Roebuck shot 53% from the floor and 40% from the 3-point line. After a year in the system, both players should be more comfortable and be valuable contributors. 

Sophomore Tatyana Modowar was unable to get much playing time as a freshman but as the tallest member of the team, she should get more chances this season to see the floor. In her short time, Modowar showed she was an active player that shot very well from the charity stripe. Her best game of last season was the opener versus Western New Mexico, where Modawar had 15 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes. Hitting on half of her six 3-point shots shows that she has the range to her shot that could get her more playing time, especially with her size. 

To fill out the rest of the UTEP roster, Baker brought two transfer guards, junior Destiny Thurman and sophomore Isis Lopes. 

Thurman was a two-time junior college All-American at Collin County Community College located in McKinney, Texas. As a sophomore, Thurman was named conference player of the year and averaged 17 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Shooting 37% from  3-point range, Thurman adds needed outside shooting that will be lost with Zec’s departure. She is also a top-level free throw shooter shooting 80% for her career. 

Lopes is a 511 transfer from the Power Fives Clemson Tigers that appeared in 13 games while being limited with injuries. Baker lauded the addition of Lopes and said she would have quite an impact on the team. Lopes is just another in the line of UTEP players with international ties being from Australia. 

UTEP added three more international freshmen with forwards Dagne Apsite of Lativa, Elina Arike of Finland and Brenda Fontana of Argentina to bring a total of six foreign-born players on the roster. The Miners have consistently made international recruiting a priority and this year was no different. All three players bring in extensive experience playing with their national teams, Arike is a high percentage shooter from the field and from the line shooting 46% and 83%, respectively. Fontana is considered a good rebounder, a skill that UTEP will be missing with Gill’s departure. Apsite adds needed size and is the seventh Latvian player to suit up for the Miners. 

Baker lauded Apsite and Arike for their ability to handle the ball like guards but have the size and shooting ability to stretch the floor. Fontana was praised for her ability to defend and should be used as a stretch four. The international experience that all these players bring to the table should help as they play teams with more size within the conference. 

In early season rankings, the Miners are expected to be middle of the conference after last seasons surprising showing. This will be the most talented and deep team that Baker has had on the floor in his four years as UTEP head coach. The Miners are a very young team that will be led by second year sensation Gallegos. Three sophomores that played major minutes will now be looked  upon  to take the next step. UTEP will go as far as  Gallegos and the young guns take them with their leadership. 

Rebounding and defense will be big question marks for a team that lost its two best players on the boards. Defensively the Miners were 13th out of 14 conference teams last season. To reach the upper tier of the conference, UTEP’s defense will need to be significantly improved. With its young core and added size and shooting the Miners should exceed conference expectations and be a topfour team within C-USA. 

The Miners open the season noon Wednesday, Nov. 25, against I-10 rival New Mexico State at the Don Haskins Center. 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]