Conference USA Tournament: UTEP women hold off La. Tech … – El Paso Times

For all the talk about how every team starts the postseason 0-0, the first game of a conference tournament tends to be a microcosm of the three months before it.
There is the short version of the UTEP women’s 64-54 victory over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA quarterfinals Wednesday morning that earned the Miners a rubber-match game with No. 25 Middle Tennessee in Thursday’s semifinals.
More:C-USA basketball tournament brackets
A Miners team that had 17 of its 20 C-USA games decided by single digits played a contest with 12 lead changes and six ties, one that was a one-point game inside the 5:00 mark, one where UTEP was able to weather a 3-for-22 shooting spell because of its relentless defense and resilience.
They charged home with a game-closing 11-2 run sparked by Elina Arike, who shook off three quarters of struggles to dominate the middle of the fourth when UTEP created the final turn of the tide.
A game where the teams combined to shoot 38% wasn’t always pretty, but the always-gritty Miners got it done.
“That game was pretty much like our season this year,” coach Kevin Baker said after his team improved to 20-10 with the season sweep of Louisiana Tech. “We had to keep doing what we were doing, rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding, building back leads. That’s how our season has gone. It’s indicative this game would go that way too.
“We had to survive a couple of runs. We’d build a lead, they’d make a run as good teams do, then we’d have to rebuild the lead. We had to play through some contact, play through some adversity and find a way to get it done.”
By the end of that 3-of-22 shooting spell a 41-28 lead in the opening moments of the third quarter turned into a 48-46 deficit and UTEP seemed to be hanging by a thread. At that point Arike had six points, but she scored nine on 4-of-4 shooting on the next six trips down the floor, most on power drives to the basket.
When Jazion Jackson, who was shut out in the first half scored the last of her eight second-half points on a drive with 2:44 remaining, the Miners were ahead 59-52. They saw it home.
“I tried to stay consistent, do my thing, keep working,” said Arike, who at one point in the third quarter had to leave the game with an ankle injury after the official stopped the clock and declined to let her play through it. “I don’t think I did anything differently. I got a breather at half time, then got back to my rhythm. I didn’t do anything special.”
As for the end-game when UTEP went on the 11-2 run, “Everybody was ready for the moment,” Arike said. “We’ve had a lot of close games, everybody kept their composure. We had the game in our hands and we had to keep it that way.”
There is a bit of irony that a game that was so close for all but a stretch around halftime and then in the final minute ended up being UTEP’s fourth largest margin of victory against a C-USA opponent this season.
“That’s all I was thinking the fourth quarter, the whole season was for this moment, we’ve been here all year long,” Baker said. “Twenty-one out of 29 games were single-digit games, that adds a little more gray hair, but that’s all I was thinking about: We’re prepared for this moment, we’re going to take care of business and we did.”
A key was getting it to the stretch. That didn’t look like it might happen when Louisiana Tech went on an 18-2 run that had it up 46-43 late in the third quarter. UTEP was able to play its way back in because its defense didn’t flinch.
“That’s what we talked about in every huddle — don’t let the offense define your defense,” Baker said. “We weren’t making shots we would normally make but we continued to get stops. Thank goodness, because that third quarter we couldn’t throw an acorn in the ocean.
“We continue to guard and if we hadn’t they would have built up a substantial lead. We’ve had to survive that before so our kids were sort of used to that if there’s a way to be used to it. It’s hard to do, when you lose all that momentum you worked 30 minutes to get. It’s difficult to earn it back but this team earned it back.”
UTEP built a lead to play with because of its bench, which outscored Louisiana Tech 21-7 in the first half (it was 2-2 in the second half). Sabina Lipe scored all 10 of her points in the first half when Erin Wilson had eight of her 10.
“At halftime one of the things we talked about the most was the 21 points off the bench,” Baker said. “Where would we have been? Twenty-one of our 38 points were off the bench. We don’t have many, we have 10, but we have enough.”
N’Yah Boyd overcame a slow shooting start and finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Miners got contributions from all eight players they used and needed that to keep their C-USA tournament dreams alive.
UTEP plays a rubber match against No. 25 Middle Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. Mountain time Friday at The Star in Frisco. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and carried on 600 ESPN El Paso.
In the first meeting between the teams this year UTEP knocked No. 21 Middle Tennessee out of the national rankings with a buzzer-beating win at the Don Haskins Center. In the second game in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, No. 24 Middle Tennessee beat UTEP in overtime and fell to No. 25 in the final regular-season rankings.
Bret Bloomquist can be reached at 915-546-6359;; @Bretbloomquist on Twitter.


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