Miners fall to Blue Raiders in C-USA women’s basketball semifinal

Junior+guard+Destiny+Thurman++looks+for+an+opening+with+two+Blue+Raider+defenders+closing+down+the+down+in+a+loss+to+MTSU+March+12.

Courtesy of UTEP

Junior guard Destiny Thurman looks for an opening with two Blue Raider defenders closing down the down in a loss to MTSU March 12.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

The UTEP Miners(17-8,13-5) had its NCAA tournament aspirations crushed Friday night with a loss to the top-seeded Middle Tennessee State (MTSU) Blue Raiders (16-7, 12-4) 74-58.

Facing the preseason conference favorite Blue Raiders, the Miners had hoped to pull an upset and advance to the conference finals with an NCAA bid on the line. UTEP was predicted to finish sixth in the conference but exceeded expectations and finished in the top four of the conference.

UTEP’s prospects for beating MTSU were promising early as the Miners scored the first four points of the game off back-to-back jumpers by junior Destiny Thurman and sophomore Katia Gallegos. At this point for MTSU, it became the Hayes show with siblings Aislynn and Anastasia combining to score the next 13 points of the game to give the Blue Raiders a 13-4 lead with 5:32 remaining in the first quarter.

Unable to get any closer than five points, UTEP’s Gallegos ended the quarter with a jumper that had the Miners trailing 21-15 after one-quarter of action. The critical difference in the quarter was MTSU hitting three 3-pointers compared to UTEP’s missing both of its shots from the arc. C-USA leading scorer Anastasia Hayes ended the quarter with 9 points.

MTSU started the second quarter with four consecutive points to stretch its lead to 10 points. Alexis Whittington hit a jumper with five minutes left in the second quarter to extend the Blue Raider lead to 12 points, then two minutes later hit a pivotal 3-pointer to increase the lead to 15 points. UTEP’s Gallegos hit a 3-pointer with one minute left in the half to keep the Miners within that margin. MTSU went into half leading 42-27.

For the quarter, the Miners shot only 33% from the field while MTSU shot a blazing 60%. MTSU added three more 3-pointers while the Miners were forced to shoot more 3-pointers to catch up while only making two of nine. The Blue Raider sibling duo of Anastasia and Aislynn combined for 24 points in the first half. The Miners were plagued by 11 fouls and nine turnovers in the first half, adding to its troubles on the scoreboard.

Events got no better for the Miners in the third quarter as Anastasia Hayes scored 8 points in the first six minutes of the quarter, increasing the Blue Raider lead to 20 points. The Miners struggled again with turnovers having five for the quarter and shot poorly from the arc, only making one of five shots. At the end of the third quarter, the Miners trailed 61-42.

Trailing by 19 entering the final period, the Miners made a valiant effort to get back into the game by intensifying its defense but could not mount any sustained momentum to get within the Blue Raiders’ striking distance. Senior Dejanae Roebuck did score 6 points in the final period but the Miners could only manage one 3-pointer for the entire period. MTSU finished the period with a comfortable 74-58 victory.

Leading all scorers on the night was C-USA Player of the year Anastasia Hayes, who had 23 points on an efficient 11 of 19 shooting while adding seven assists. For the Miners, Thurman scored a career-high 16 points on 7 of 12 shooting from the field, including two 3-pointers. The only other Miner in double figures was senior Dejanae Roebuck with 10 points, and Senior Michelle Pruitt added 13 rebounds. All-conference point guard Gallegos struggled on the night, hitting 3 of 12 shots, including only shooting one of seven from the arc.

Turnovers and poor shooting from the 3-point line were the significant factors in the Miners’ loss. Overall, the Miners had 16 turnovers compared to the Blur Raiders’ eight. MTSU shot a stellar 38% from the 3-point line while the Miners only converted 20% of its shots. Shooting just 33% from the foul line did not help the Miner cause either.

“We just didn’t have our A-game today,” UTEP coach Kevin Baker said. “I can’t explain it and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. This is a good team with a lot of character. I thought we would have played a little bit better today, but unfortunately, we didn’t. I feel bad about that as a coach. It is my job to get them better prepared, and I will learn from this and get better as well. I think this is going to be a great learning opportunity for our team and maybe we can come back and win it next year.”

MTSU now goes on to play in the conference tournament final Saturday against Rice as UTEP heads home to EL Paso. UTEP has a chance to continue to play if the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) invites the Miners into its 16 team field. NIT will extend invites Monday, with the Miners hoping to get a call.

“You never know, we’d like the opportunity to play better,” Baker said.

The good news for UTEP, barring transfers, is that the team only has two seniors on the roster and under new NCAA guidelines, they could possibly return with a waiver. Either way, the Miner team’s core returns as a strong contender in the conference next season.

“If you want to win this game, sometimes you have to lose this game to see how close you were,” Baker said. “It is a process, but we have a very young team. Maybe they need to lose this game to figure out a way to win.”

“We have the players to do it. This is going to be a great growth opportunity for them to come back and win it next year.”

 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]