UTEP Men’s and Women’s Basketball: One on Top and One on Bottom
Tomorrow night, the UTEP women's basketball team host the Rice Owls in a key league matchup for both squads. The Miners are currently tied with Old Dominion for second in C-USA with a 4-1 record while Rice is undefeated at 6-0. Head coach Kevin Baker has transformed his team into one of the league's most exciting and competitive clubs. His Miners are also achieving the kind of success on the court that fans expected from the men's team.
Last season, the UTEP men's team won eight games while the women's team finished with nine victories. Head coach Rodney Terry chose to recruit five Division 1 transfers who sat out last season. Instead, he played a young lineup with a limited bench that featured multiple walk-ons.
Coach Baker had a more unlucky second season, since multiple recruits who had signed with his program had left the school in the summer of 2018. He also lost four members of his roster due to injury and the UTEP women finished the season with a rotation of only six healthy players. This past offseason, the team's leading scorer Zuzanna Puc left the school and transferred to the University of Utah.
Expectations were the high for the UTEP men coming into the 2019-20 season, with all five D1 holdovers joining a Juco and graduate transfer on the active roster. The early results were terrific and Coach Terry's team looked even better than advertised. The Miners won both exhibition contests against highly regarded Texas Tech and Grand Canyon, plus they swept both home games against New Mexico State and New Mexico. Junior forward Bryson Williams has been terrific all season, and he is currently second in the league in scoring at 19.4 points per game.
Since their 8-1 start however, the UTEP men's record is just 3-7, including a mark of 2-4 in C-USA play. Their biggest issue has been closing out games, and they have struggled to score over the final 3-5 minutes in many of their losses. UTEP is currently 11th in the league standings, but their off the court issues early in C-USA play took a toll on the team. Coach Terry was hospitalized a few weeks back with a life threatening allergic reaction while the team had three players enter the transfer portal. Only Kaosi Ezeagu left the program (transferred to Kansas State), but the distraction of Nigel Hawkins and Jordan Lathon entering the portal was a bad recipe for the start of league action.
While the men's team has not been able to match their hot start, the UTEP women have exceeded their goals. The nine win season combined with the loss of Puc made for an uncertain third season under Coach Baker. Instead of inconsistent play, the Miner women have been among the best in C-USA. They have already topped last season's win total with 11 and five of those wins have been by 30 or more points. What is even more impressive is that senior Katarina Zec is the only player to average double figures in scoring. So how are the women doing it?
A huge reason is the play of Katia Gallegos. The true freshman point guard has lived up to the hype after a stellar career at Franklin High School. Gallegos is averaging just under 10 points per game, along with 5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. More importantly, she is a true point guard, something Coach Baker did not have last season. In addition to Gallegos, senior forward Ariona Gill has been healthy and productive for the Miners, averaging 9.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Freshmen Avery Crouse and Arina Khlopkova have both been valuable role players along with newcomers Michelle Pruitt, DeJaNae Roebuck, Tatyana Modawar, and Tia Bradshaw. Sophomore returnees Ariana Taylor and Sabine Lipe along with senior forward Jade Rochelle have rounded out the rotation.
As good as the Miners have been offensively, it is their defense that has been the key to their success. They have held their opponents to just 58.8 points per game, 56th best out of 348 Division 1 teams. Unlike last season, Coach Baker has a deep team that can press and force more than 20 turnovers per game. This UTEP team has developed a defensive identity while still scoring nearly 72 points per game.
A lot of things can happen on the court over the next six weeks. Beginning January 30th, the women's team will hit the road for seven of their final 11 regular season games. That will include a big rematch against Rice on March 5th. As for the men, they will try and win their first conference road game since March of 2018 when they play at Rice on Thursday night. For now, one team is fighting for the top of the league's standings while the other one is trying to get out of the cellar.