UTEP bolted out to an early double-figure lead and never looked back in a wire-to-wire and 2012 Conference USA championship clinching 68-50 victory against SMU in front of the fifth-biggest crowd in program history (6,532) at the Don Haskins Center Thursday evening.
It marks the second regular-season title (2007-08) for the Miners (25-2, 14-0 C-USA), who have now won 15 straight games. That streak is the second longest in the school and third best in league annals.
UTEP led the Mustangs (12-15, 5-9) by double figures for the final 32 minutes of the game, with the school-record fourth straight crowd of 4,000-plus feet coming to its feet to salute the home side during the last 60 seconds.
“The first half we had some transition points, we got some up-tempo offense going,” UTEP head coach Keitha Adams said. “Defensively it was a pretty solid effort.”
Anete Steinberga recorded double figures (12 points) for the third straight contest and fourth time in the past five, while also grabbing five rebounds. Senior Erika Warren continued her strong play in the month of February with a game-high 13 points while Melisa Mendes, Chrishauna Parker and Kayla Thornton all finished with seven points.
UTEP connected on 41.4 percent (24-of-58) from the floor, while nailing 16-of-20 (80 percent) at the free-throw line. It had a 34-24 edge in points in the paint and 20-12 advantage in points off turnovers.
The Miners, who cruised into the locker room with a 15-point cushion (36-21), also took care of business in the rebounding department. They outrebounded the Mustangs, 41-31, which was aided by grabbing 18 offensive boards. Thornton had a team-high seven rebounds, followed by six from Gloria Brown and five each for Steinberga and Kelli Willingham.
There were a lot of looks used at the defensive end of the court, and they effectively confused the Mustangs. SMU hit on 35.7 percent (20-of-56) from the floor, while becoming the school-standard 10th opponent on the season to be limited to 50 or fewer points.
Samantha Mahnesmith and Raven Short paced the visitors with nine points each, while Akil Simpson was held in check with eight points. SMU finished with as many turnovers as field-goals made, and connected on just 2-of-12 from beyond-the-arc.
UTEP fed off the crowd’s energy early, jumping out to a 8-2 lead less than two-and a-half minutes into the contest. SMU trimmed it to three (9-6) before the Orange and Blue used a 15-5 push over the next several minutes to secure a double-digit advantage.
The Mustangs, who faced the aforementioned 15-point deficit at the break, could get no closer than 15 over the final 12 minutes of action. UTEP’s largest advantage was 20 (twice).
The Miners will return to action when they play host to Rice in their “Senior Day” game at 2:05 p.m. MST Sunday. It will be the third and final “Grand Prize Giveaway Game” of the season, and one lucky fan will win an iPad2.