Miners look to challenge for the conference championship

UTEP+point+guard+Katia+Gallegos+drives+to+the+basket+drawing+two+Monarch+players+to+defend+her+versus+Old+Dominion+Feb+8%2C+2020.

Michael Cuviello

UTEP point guard Katia Gallegos drives to the basket drawing two Monarch players to defend her versus Old Dominion Feb 8, 2020.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

As a No. 2 seed in the Conference USA (C-USA) Tournament, the UTEP Miners(16-7, 13-5) face the East Division’s third seed Florida Atlantic (FAU) Owls {11-10, 8-8) in a quarter-final rematch of last year’s tourney opponent 1:30 p.m. today.

UTEP won easily in last year’s opening game 95-67 over the Owls. This season UTEP faced the Owls twice at home, splitting both games, including a 92-62 blowout which had four Miners scoring in double figures led by first-team all-conference point guard Katia Gallegos with 19.

“I feel like our team is built for the tournament,”  UTEP Coach Kevin Baker said. “We have great depth, we’ve gotten a lot of rest this week, we’re fresh, we’re ready to go.”

Offensively both teams average over 70 points or more a game. UTEP is second in the conference shooting 43% from the field, while FAU has struggled as a middle-of-the-pack shooting team at 40%. The Miners finished third in the conference in 3-point shooting with 32%, while FAU shot a respectable 30%.

On the boards, FAU is one of the best in the conference rebounding the ball and were the best at getting offensive rebounds. While UTEP finished at the bottom of the conference in rebounding, the team was among the best at keeping opponents off the offensive glass. In the two-game split with FAU, the team that controlled the boards won each game.

Florida Atlantic was one of the most turnover teams in the conference with 18 a game, while UTEP averaged 15 a game while forcing over 17 a game.

“I feel good about our chances. We can beat anybody in the bracket but there’s not an easy game in the bracket either,” Baker said. “We’re going to have to play well but I do like the way we’re playing; I like the way our team is built. If the ball bounces the right way for us, we can get this done.”

For the Owls, the team depends on C-USA’s second-leading scorer, graduate transfer Iggy Allen who has averaged 22.7 points a game.  Allen is one of the best outside shooters in C-USA, hitting almost 40% of her shots from the arc. In the win over UTEP, Allen had 28 points and in the loss, the Miners held her to 15 points. Finishing third in the conference in rebounding, Allen also averaged over 11 rebounds a game and had 17 in game one versus the Miners this season. Also, an excellent defender Allen averaged 2.3 steals per game

FAU had no other players that averaged over 10 points a game but relied on a deep bench, including its second-leading scorer, sophomore Janeta Rozentale, who did not play in the UTEP series; Rozentale averaged 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game for the Owls.

Senior Astou Gaye has only been able to play 11 games this season for the Owls but has been a scoring sparkplug over the past three games averaging over 15 points a game while shooting 57% from the field, including 53% from the arc. Gaye was a key second scorer in FAU’s first C-USA tournament win in history with 17 points in a win over Alabama- Birmingham.

The key to victory for the Miners will be ball movement and the team’s ability to hit its outside shots. Stopping Allen for a full game will be difficult, so UTEP must ensure that she does not score in bunches or control the boards. In UTEP’s win over FAU, Allen was only 4 of 16 from the field and tied a season-low four rebounds. As Allen goes, FAU goes.

UTEP is led on offense by Gallegos, who has averaged 14 points a game and finished third in the conference in assists per game with 4.7. Gallegos has done a great job of not turning the ball over with one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the conference. Gallegos averaged 19 points a game and 4,5 assists in both games versus the Owls this season.

The Miners, much like the Owls, have and use a deep bench. Sophomore Isis Lopes has averaged 15 points a game over the past three games while shooting 58% from the field. Lopes gives UTEP another go-to outside shooter hitting 40% of her shots from beyond the arc. Coming off the bench, Lopes averages 25 minutes a game and is by far the team’s best outside shooter.

“We have a different makeup than other teams who are six or seven deep,” Baker said. “We have 10; sometimes we had 11, we can play consistently.”

Senior Michelle Pruitt has been an inside presence shooting 58% from the field while leading the team in rebounding with 6.7 a game. Pruitt has scored in double figures 4 of the last five games and averages 9.4 points a game.

Nine players average over 11 minutes per game for the Miners. Starters Destiny Thurman and Avery Crouse have been reliable starters that have brought scoring when needed and tough defense. Freshman Elena Arike has contributed with her strong inside presence along with junior Sabine Lipe and her hard-nosed play on both ends of the court.

If UTEP can keep from being dominated on the boards and continue not turning the ball over, the Miners should be able to handle FAU. It all depends on how well the team can contain Allen. FAU has won eight of its last 10 games and is a much healthier team than the Miners faced earlier in the year.

“If I have a concern going into the tournament, it’s being off this long, but on the list of problems to have, this would be the No. 1 problem I’d want to have,” Baker said.

With the men being eliminated Tuesday, the women’s team is UTEP’s last chance for postseason success.

UTEP tips off 1:30 p.m today against FAU in Frisco, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN+ and broadcast on ESPN AM 600 EL Paso.

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]