Senior Jordan Alexander (13 points), Katarina Zec (12 points) and Ariona Gill (10 points) all hit double figures in scoring but 11th-seed UTEP was knocked off by third-seed Middle Tennessee, 66-44, in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Air Force Reserve Conference USA Basketball Championships presented by Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center at The Star Thursday afternoon. The Miners (9-22) conclude their season while the Lady Raiders (21-9) advance to face second-seed UAB in the semifinals at 7 p.m. MT/8 p.m. CT Friday.
Coming off the thrilling double-overtime victory against Marshall, UTEP was unable to conjure up that magic for a second straight day. MT scored the first seven points in the game on the way to leading by 11 (21-10) through 10 minutes of action. UTEP tried to hang tough, trailing by 10 (31-21) with 3:22 to play in the half. MT, however, got hot and scored the final 12 points in the frame to put the Orange and Blue down by 22 (43-21) heading into the locker room.
MT tallied the first seven points after the break, and UTEP was never able to get back into the contest. The Miners continued to play hard, though, outscoring the Lady Raiders (16-9) in the final frame.
“Middle Tennessee is really good and they played extraordinarily well,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “I’m really impressed, but not surprised with how they played. I’m just so pleased and impressed with our team, specifically Jordan Alexander. We’re here today because of her and the strength of seven young ladies, who decided to not give up and not to be a victim of circumstances. I do we wish we would have played a little bit better and been a bit more competitive in this game.”
The Miners, who had seven players dressed for the 12th consecutive contest, still somehow played hard despite being on the court for 50 minutes in the exhilarating upset of the Thundering Herd (64-56, 2OT, March 13). The effort, though, didn’t translate into shots falling. UTEP finished at 26.8 percent (11-41) from the floor, which was hindered by a 20.0 readout (3-15) from 3-point range. The Miners did a solid job at the charity stripe, connecting on 70.4 percent (19-27).
Fittingly the senior Alexander paced the squad in her final game with the Orange and Blue. Zec, who tallied her 12th consecutive double-digit scoring effort, got it going on offense in addition to Gill. Freshman Ariana Taylor chipped in five points and five boards.
The Lady Raiders drilled 42.9 percent (24-56), including 34.8 percent (8-23) from beyond-the-arc. Included in that was hitting 3-4 from distance in the critical first quarter. Another factor in the contest was MT outrebounding UTEP, 43-23.
Alex Johnson (17 points) paced a trio of MT players in double figures with scoring.
Middle Tennessee jumped out early on UTEP, scoring the first seven points in the contest. Gill banked home a lay-up to get UTEP on the board, which was followed by a pair of free throws by Taylor to bring the Miners within three (7-4) with 6:33 to play in the opening frame. The Lady Raiders countered with five consecutive points before a driving lay-up from Zuzanna Puc halted the surge and made the score, 12-6. MT scored the next five points to get a double-digit cushion (17-6). It was back-and-forth the rest of the quarter, with the Miners trailing by 11 (21-10) through 10 minutes of action.
UTEP tried to hang tough in the second quarter, with the margin at 10 (31-21) after an Alexander pull-up jumper with 3:22 to play in the half. MT founded another gear, ripping off 12 consecutive points to put the Miners in a 22-point hole (43-21) at the break. The Lady Raiders accounted for the first seven points in the second stanza, and UTEP couldn’t recover. It did, though, continue to compete until the final whistle, which was reflected in it outscoring MT by seven (16-9) over the final 10 minutes.
The setback wraps up the 2018-19 campaign, in addition to the career of the lone senior Alexander. She made quite an impact in two years after arriving as a transfer as Baker’s first recruit. She started all but one game (61 of 62 GP) while amassing more than 500 points (540) and 350 rebounds (358) in two seasons. Alexander also demonstrated a willingness to give up her body for the betterment of the team, taking countless charges.
“These guys have a ton of heart,” Baker said. “I really appreciate what they do for our school and our community.”