Miners advance to C-USA semifinals, face perennial C-USA power Middle Tennessee State

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Michael Cuviello

UTEP all confernce guard Katia Gallegos shoots over Weber State defender Dec. 5 2019.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

The UTEP Miners (17-7,13-5), shooting a blistering 66% from the floor in the third period, were able to take control of its game versus the Florida Atlantic (FAU) Owls (11-11, 8-8) en route to a 74-67 quarterfinal victory in the Conference USA Tournament.

Early in the matchup, the Miners scored eight consecutive points as the team jumped out to an early 8-2 lead at the 6:45 mark of the first period. Senior Dejanae Roebuck started strong with two early jumpers to provide a spark for the Miners. Neither team scored over the next two minutes of game action,

With 4:41 left in the quarter, the Owls went on its own 8 point run on the back of back-to-back 3-pointers from Sofia Galeron to give FAU a 10-8 lead. From this point, the Miners only hit one more shot from the field as the Owls ended the quarter with a 16-12 lead.

The Owls were able to stretch the lead to 7 points after three minutes of play in the second period on an Iggy Allen transition jumper. UTEP then stepped up on defense as the Miners shut down the Owls on the scoreboard for the next three minutes and created turnovers. Offensively the Miners scored 11 straight points, including two 3-pointers from junior Tia Bradshaw to take a 25-21 lead with 3:52 remaining before the half.

Bradshaw’s 8 points in the quarter were critical to the Miners building a 34-29 halftime lead. The Miner defense held FAU’s all-conference guard Allen, to 6 points in the first half. UTEP was still able to carve out a lead even though it was only shooting 35% in the first half.

The Miners came out in the third quarter, hitting its first four shots without a miss as UTEP increased its lead to 9 points with seven minutes remaining in the quarter. A Thurman 3-pointer followed by a free throw from senior Michelle Pruitt had the Miners leading by 10 points with five minutes elapsed in the third period. Sophomore Arina Klopkova, who has seen her role diminish most of the season, hit two 3-pointers to stretch the Miner lead to 56-44. Klopkova had only made two 3-pointers in her previous 15 games combined.

UTEP held on to a 9 point lead by the end of the third quarter on four consecutive points from sophomore all-conference guard Katia Gallegos. Both teams were deadly from the field in the quarter. FAU shot 64% from the floor and UTEP shot 66% for the period. UTEP was four of five from the arc for the quarter.

Three minutes into the final quarter, the Miners were still maintaining a 65-55 lead. Over the next two minutes, the Miners committed three turnovers that enabled the Owls to cut the UTEP lead in half. Roebuck put an end to the Owl run with a clutch 3-pointer which took the Miner lead back up to 8 points.

FAU made one last run at the Miners, cutting the deficit to a 5 point margin with one minute left in the contest. The Owls were never able to capitalize, missing its final four shots from the field, with its only scoring coming on two free throws as the Miners went on to a 74-67 opening-round victory.

“Our bench play was the difference,” UTEP coach Kevin Baker said. “I thought our bench gave us a lift when we needed it.”

For the second year in a row, the Miners secured an opening-round victory in the C-USA Tournament.  Roebuck led all players with 17 points on 7-11 shooting from the field. Gallegos had a strong all-around game with 15 points, seven rebounds, four steals and season-high 11 assists.

“We didn’t play our A-game today and I think FAU had a lot to do with that,”  Baker said. “I thought they played really well early and kept us out of what we like to do. They are so well-coached and so prepared for this game with one-day prep, so you have to tip your hat to them. We couldn’t get our rhythm going until the second quarter and when we did we started playing a lot better basketball and doing what we do offensively a little better. I think it helped our defense to play in better rhythm on offense. We played a better game the longer that we played.”

For FAU, UTEP was able to turn one of the best players in C-USA, Allen, into a nonfactor as the team held her to a season-low 12 points before she fouled out of the game. Allen also was a nonfactor on the boards with only four rebounds. For the season, Allen averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds per game.

The Miners were outshot 48% to 41% from the field but were able to make the outside shots count as UTEP shot 35% from the 3-point line compared to FAU’s 25%.

UTEP now prepares to face perennial NCAA tournament participant the Middle Tennessee State (MTSU) Blue Raiders (15-7, 12-4) in the C-USA tournament’s semifinal matchup. MTSU has won six straight games over the Miners, with UTEP’s last win coming in 2016.

Coming off a 77-71 win over La Tech, the Blue Raiders are led by C-USA’s leading scorer Anastasia Hayes who averages 27 points a game. Hayes also led C-USA in steals with 2.9 per game and finished second overall in assists with five per game.was second in assists in the conference with five per game. Hayes shoots 46* from the field.

MTSU also features her talented sibling Aislynn Hayes who averages 14 points a game and Courtney Whitson, one of the top rebounders in the conference with eight a game while also averaging 10 points scored a game.

UTEP’s key advantages are the team’s ability to go deep into its bench and the Miners are a better shooting team. Both teams rely on defense to make the offense get into a rhythm and both teams are good at creating turnovers while minimizing their own. For the second game in a row, the Miners face an elite college scorer that can carry a team on their back. Keeping Hayes under her season average would do a lot toward securing a Miner victory. Ball movement and good outside shots that are consistently made will be a golden ticket to the C-USA championship.

The Miners’ semifinal matchup with MTSU starts 7:30 p.m. from Frisco, Texas and will be broadcast on AM 600 ESPN El Paso. Game is available to stream on watchstadium.com.

Michael Cuvieloo may be reached at [email protected]