UTEP bolted out to its largest halftime lead (21 points; 35-14) in a league game in 10 years and never looked back on the way to posting a wire-to-wire 70-44 win at Florida Atlantic Thursday. The 26-point triumph matches the biggest margin of victory in the Kevin Baker era.
The Miners (5-18, 2-8 C-USA) held the Owls (4-19, 1-9 C-USA) to the lowest field-goal percentage (24.5 percent) by a conference foe since former league member Tulsa shot 20.6 percent on Jan. 31, 2013. There were no such woes for UTEP, which eclipsed 50.0 percent (52.0 percent) shooting from the floor for the second consecutive contest. The Miners were particularly locked in over the final three quarters, combining to go 21-36 (58.3 percent) in that timeframe.
Zuzanna Puc (18 points), Katarina Zec (16 points) and Ariana Taylor (11 points) all reached double figures in scoring for the short-handed Miners, who dressed just seven players for the fourth consecutive contest. Jordan Alexander pitched in nine points while Jade Rochelle notched eight points and a game-high eight rebounds. Neidy Ocuane contributed across the board, with six points, a career-high six rebounds and a personal-best tying five assists.
The 44 points allowed establish an opponent season low, while the Orange and Blue also recorded a campaign-high 10 steals. UTEP pounded FAU down low, piling up 44 points (to just 14 allowed) in the paint, while also finishing a robust 16-19 from the charity stripe. The Miners won the boards (39-29), and also held an 11-5 edge in second-chance points.
The outcome snaps an eight-game skid for the Miners while also propelling them into sole possession of 11th place in C-USA. FAU, FIU and UTSA sit in a three-way tie for 12th place at 1-9 in the league, but the Miners now have wins over both UTSA and FAU on the season. The top-12 finishes in league play will qualify for the 2019 C-USA Championships.
“We’ll take this win. This (stretch) has been tough on the kids but they’ve kept fighting,” Baker said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. They’re making better decisions, taking better shots and making more shots obviously. I was proud of how we gutted out the second half. I’m just proud of them and their resiliency. They’re learning how to fight and they’re learning how to play better basketball.”
UTEP scored the first eight points of the game before FAU answered with back-to-back baskets to cut the lead in half. The two sides traded buckets in the waning minutes of the stanza, with the Miners holding a 12-6 advantage through 10 minutes of action. A big factor in the start was holding FAU to 1-14 shooting from the floor in the frame.
The Miners continued to get after it as the half progressed, particularly defensively, by keeping FAU to just 2-14 from the field in the second quarter. At the other end of the court UTEP started to get into a rhythm. The payoff was a 12-0 run to start the frame, which helped the Miners eventually outscore FAU by 15 (23-8) in the period to secure the aforementioned 21-point advantage (35-14) at the half. It marked the largest halftime cushion in a conference contest for the Orange and Blue since they were up by 24 (55-31) against Southern Miss on Feb. 21, 2009.
UTEP continued to play well in the second half, answering every push by FAU and never letting the home side back into the contest. The Miners’ largest lead was 29 (70-41, 2:06 4Q), which equals their biggest advantage of the campaign.
UTEP will wrap up its stay in the “Sunshine State” when it plays at FIU at 12 p.m. MT/2 p.m. ET on Saturday. Brandon Cohn will have the call on 600 ESPN El Paso.