El Paso, TX — A united UTEP women’s basketball team pushed its winning streak to three with a 72-57 road conquest of Rice in front of a nationally-televised audience (Fox Sports Networks) at Tudor Fieldhouse early Saturday afternoon.
The Miners (23-5, 12-3 C-USA) outscored the Owls (12-16, 5-10 C-USA) 42-28 over the final 20 minutes, including a 26-4 run spanning eight minutes midway through the second half, to spoil the home side’s “Senior Day.” UTEP connected on 54.8 percent from the floor in the stanza while also forcing Rice into making nine of its 15 turnovers.
The game-changing surge brought a partisan Miner crowd, which included UTEP President Dr. Diana Natalicio, to life, and the Owls never recovered. The advantage swelled to as many as 23 before a late push by Rice made things a little more aesthetically pleasing as the final buzzer sounded.
For the second straight contest the Orange and Blue were without the services of senior leader Kayla Thornton, but a team effort across the board made that fact a moot point.
Kristine Vitola (18 points), Sparkle Taylor (14 points) and Jenzel Nash (13) all reached double figures in scoring to lead the way for the Miners, who pounded Rice down low. They outscored the Owls, 38-24, in points in the paint, which helped them finish at 45.5 percent (30-of-66) from the floor in the contest.
Rice mixed up its defenses, including using a swarming trap, but UTEP handled it with ease. The Miners dished out 12 assists while committing only nine turnovers, using smart, quick passes to effectively render the schemes useless.
But the day belonged to the defense. UTEP flocked to the ball, and Rice never got into a rhythm. The Owls were held to 35.4 percent (23-of-65) from the floor, including just 3-of-15 from beyond-the-arc.
Christal Porter 21 points, 15 rebounds) enjoyed a big day but no other Owl reached double figures in scoring. Potential C-USA Player of the Year, Jessica Kuster, was essentially shut down. She finished with seven points (3-of-9 FG, 1-of-2 FT) and 10 rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes of the game.
Kuster, who had posted 12 straight and 24 double-doubles on the year, was face guarded throughout the tilt which certainly limited her impact.
Rice looked sharp early, bolting out to a 10-4 lead over the first 3:33 of the contest. Kuster had five points and two boards in the sequence but a timeout by Keitha Adams refocused her squad. The defensive intensity was noticeably different after the break, and Kuster scored just two points over the final 36:27 of the game.
UTEP took its first lead (13-12) with a jumper by Vitola at 12:41 but the Owls struck back with a 10-4 surge to lead 22-17 with 9:07 remaining in the first half. The home side’s cushion remained five (24-19) with 5:53 to play in the period but the Orange and Blue closed it strong by going on a 11-6 run to carry a 30-29 lead into the locker room.
It was back-and-forth over the first five minutes of the second half before UTEP found another gear.
The Miners will wrap up the regular season when they play at Florida Atlantic at 5 p.m. MST Wednesday. Fans can listen live on 1150 AM.