UTEP hung tough early with league-leading Middle Tennessee before the visitors found another level in an eventual 79-49 defeat Saturday afternoon at the Don Haskins Center.
The Miners (4-14, 1-4 C-USA) trailed by just four (14-10) with 4:31 to play in the first quarter only to have the Blue Raiders (15-4, 6-0 C-USA) rip off a 36-7 half-closing run to head into the locker room armed with a 50-17 advantage. To its credit UTEP continued to battle after the break and was rewarded by outscoring the first place team in the league, 32-29, over the final 20 minutes.
Zuzanna Puc (17 points) and Jordan Alexander (14 points) reached double digits in scoring for the Miners, who were plagued by an off shooting day. UTEP finished at 28.6 percent (12-42) from the floor in the contest. MT cooled off in the second half but still finished at 44.4 percent (26-63) for the game. The visitors also drained 11 3-pointers to the Miners’ four triples.
UTEP committed only 11 turnovers and was credited with nine helpers on its 12 made field goals. Puc pulled down a team-high eight rebounds while Jade Rochelle (six) and Alexa Hoy (career-high five) also got involved on the glass.
MT was led by A’Queen Hayes, who finished with a double-double (18 points, 13 rebounds). Alexis Whittington (13 points) and Taylor Sutton (10 points) also reached double figures for the Blue Raiders.
“I want to give a shout out to our unbelievable fans,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “We came out of the tunnel in the second half. They lifted our players and were encouraging. This is why UTEP is a special place. It’s tough for us, for our players but we can find things in the second half that we can build on.”
MT set the tone early by peeling off seven straight points to start the ballgame. UTEP countered by tallying seven of the next points in the contest, cutting the margin to two (9-7) with 6:55 left in the first quarter. After a mini 5-0 run from the Blue Raiders, the Orange and Blue used a free throw from Puc and a jumper by Alexander to get within four (14-10) with 4:31 remaining in the opening stanza. It took a turn from that point on, with MT outscoring UTEP, 16-3, to close out the period and put the Miners down by 17 (30-13) after 10 minutes of action.
UTEP moved the ball effectively on offense in the second quarter to create some good looks, but just couldn’t get them to fall. It was a different story for MT, which continued to click on all cylinders on the way to leading by 33 (50-17) heading into halftime. The visitors shot a ridiculous 66.7 percent (20-30) over the first 20 minutes.
The Blue Raiders opened up the third quarter on a 7-0 push, making it a 40-point tilt (57-17) with 7:04 to play in the third quarter. Rochelle drilled a jumper to end the surge, and it was back-and-forth the rest of the period, with MT only managing to extend its halftime cushion by two as the contest swung into the final frame.
The home side enjoyed its finest moments of the contest in the fourth quarter. The Miners nailed 55.6 percent (5-9) from the floor in the frame, including 4-4 on treys, while also sinking 10 free throws on the way to piling up 24 points in the final 10 minutes of action against the top scoring defense in C-USA. Puc led the charge, tallying 12 of her team-high 17 points in the period. She was 3-3 from distance in the final quarter (3-6 for the game), an amazing feat considering she entered the contest having gone 2-16 on triples this season.
UTEP heads back on the road with a cross-country trip for a pair of match-ups in the Eastern Time Zone. The Miners will then conclude a stretch of playing five of their first seven league contests on the road with a tilt at Charlotte at 2 p.m. MT/4 p.m. ET on Jan. 26. Both contests will be broadcast locally on 600 ESPN El Paso with Brandon Cohn on the call.