EL PASO, Texas – Avery Crouse (career-high tying 21 points), Katarina Zec (17 points), Arina Khlopkova (14 points) and Katia Gallegos (career-high 12 assists, career-most seven steals) all had big days as UTEP toppled Southern Miss, 80-72, on “Senior Day” at the Don Haskins Center Saturday afternoon.
It was a back-and-forth game with five ties and five lead changes, with the Miners (15-12, 8-8 C-USA) ripping off seven straight points midway through the fourth quarter to turn a one-point deficit into a six-point advantage (63-57). The Lady Eagles (14-13, 6-10 C-USA) could get no closer than four the rest of the way, with UTEP closing out the contest in style.
The 12 assists by Gallegos were one shy of the UTEP single-game record and tied for third-most in a contest by a Miner. Her seven steals earned her a share for seventh for UTEP’s single-game charts.
The Miners shot 48.3 percent (28-58) from the floor, piled up 22 assists on 28 field goals made, while forcing 23 turnovers that led to 24 points. That effort allowed UTEP to offset being outrebounded by 13 (43-30).
“That was a terrific college basketball game today,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “It could have gone either way, but I thought our whole team stepped up. This team is a special team, and I’m glad that our fans came out to watch us play. They got their money’s worth.”
Kelsey Jones (11 points, 11 rebounds) and Respect Leaphart (17 points, 11 boards) each recorded double-doubles to set the tone for the visitors.
All four seniors for UTEP played, with Zec leading the quartet with 17 points, two assists, two rebounds and two steals. Jade Rochelle came off the bench to provide five points and a team-best seven boards in only six minutes, while Ariona Gill fought through foul trouble to contribute five rebounds. Neidy Ocuane, who has been sidelined since the fourth game of the year with an injury, played in the final minute of the contest.
But on a day when the seniors were honored, it was the freshmen that showed UTEP has a bright future as well. Crouse, Gallegos and Khlopkova combined for 41 points, seven rebounds, 14 assists and nine steals to make contributions across the board.
Southern Miss scored the first four points of the contest and was still up by three (11-8) at the media timeout of the first quarter. UTEP turned things around by using an 11-5 push to close the frame with a three-point cushion (19-16). Khlopkova got the stretch going by burying one of her three triples in the contest. Crouse capped it with a corner triple off a feed from Gallegos.
Khlopkova kept things going in the second quarter by knocking down triples on consecutive possessions to balloon the Miner margin to nine (29-20) with 7:02 remaining in the first half. It was evenly contested the rest of the period, with UTEP heading into the locker room armed with a seven-point advantage (38-31).
UTEP extended the margin to 11 (43-32) early in the third quarter before Southern Miss made its move. The Lady Eagles scored the next nine points in the contest to cut the Miners’ lead all the way down to two (43-41). UTEP regrouped and got it back out to six early in the fourth quarter only to have USM score seven straight and take the lead for the first time since the opening half.
Fittingly Crouse knocked down a triple, followed by a Gallegos driving lay-up to spark a 7-0 surge for UTEP, which put the home side back on top for good.
UTEP will venture to preseason favorite Rice for a 6 p.m. MT/7 p.m. CT tip-off on March 5. The game is part of a season-closing stretch with five of seven on the road. The Miners will then wrap up the regular season at North Texas at 6 p.m. MT/7 p.m. CT on March 7.