LAS CRUCES, N.M. – UTEP built some separation midway through the fourth quarter and held on late to finish off the season sweep of rival NM State with a 57-52 win on Tuesday night in the Pan American Center.
The Miners (7-2) had defeated the Aggies (3-7) 65-61 in El Paso to end last month before ending non-conference play on a high note with the road victory Tuesday in Las Cruces. UTEP has won eight straight in the head-to-head series, a record for either side in the Battle of I-10.
With both teams even at 37 to start the fourth quarter, Molly Kaiser would give NM State a 39-37 lead with 8:28 remaining. From that point on, the Miners would not trail again, as Erin Wilson and Elina Arike teamed for a 6-0 run to put the Miners up four.
Ahead 43-39, UTEP went on to build the lead to as large as nine with 4:07 remaining when Arike hit a layup to make it 50-41 in favor of the visitors.
“I just think we kept believing that we could do it,” Arike said. “Like Coach Baker said, in every set we were lacking execution at times, and we didn’t get into rhythm. Once we hit a couple of good shots, I think that helped. We just kept believing that we could do it and kept working for it the whole game.”
The basket was part of a big night for Arike, who scored a season-high 16 points with five rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
“That was a heck of a college basketball game,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “That game was played the way it was supposed to be played, down to the wire and both teams back-and-forth. That’s what rivalry games are supposed to be like.”
Arike was joined in double figures by Avery Crouse, who netted 10 points and grabbed three boards. Crouse played all 40 minutes on the night.
For Crouse, she ends her career undefeated against the Aggies.
“I was excited in the locker room because in my four years here we have not lost to NMSU,” Crouse said. “I know when I got here my freshman year it was a very big rivalry, and my teammates were very excited every time we played them. It means something to me that we were able to be undefeated, at least in my time here.”
Thanks in large part to Arike, the Miners initially jumped out in front 12-8, with the native of Helsinki, Finland contributing seven of the first 12 points.
A 9-0 run by the Aggies followed, giving NM State a 17-12 advantage after the first quarter.
The Aggies continued to make things difficult for UTEP to start the second, building their largest lead of the night at 29-19 after a Shania Harper layup.
A quality response followed for the Miners, who scored eight of the final 10 points of the half to inch within four heading into the break.
“We faced a lot of adversity early,” Baker said. “We just kept staring that in the face and fighting back. One of the great things about this game is that I really felt like when our team built the lead that the look they had in their eyes at timeouts showed me that we really weren’t going to relinquish the lead, and that’s a nice look for a coach to get. I’m very, very proud of our team. That’s eight in a row over a very good program, and that’s very, very difficult to do.”
UTEP outscored NM State 10-6 in a low-scoring third quarter that set up the 37-37 tie entering the fourth.
To secure the win, the Miners forced a turnover on a backdoor pass by the Aggies with 32.3 seconds left in the game to get the possession back. NM State then waited nearly 15 seconds to foul. N’Yah Boyd split her free throw attempts in the situation and the Aggies would miss their final two shots of the contest over the last 15 seconds to seal their fate.
UTEP went 20-of-43 (46.5 percent) from the floor as part of the best shooting performance of the season for the team. NM State was 21-of-57 (36.8 percent) overall and 3-of-15 (20 percent) from downtown.
The Miners take the positive momentum into Conference USA play on Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech at 1 p.m. MT.