UTEP Women Begin Hoops Postseason in Frisco
For head coach Kevin Baker, the 2018-19 regular season was impossible for him to predict. It started over the summer when a pair of new UTEP signees suddenly chose to leave town and back out of their commitment to the Miners. From November 17th to December 1st, UTEP lost five consecutive games by a total of 13 points. If that was not enough, the Miners lost a pair of players on January 24th in Norfolk against Old Dominion to injuries and the team was suddenly down to six players.
The good news is that junior Ariona Gill was able to return to action soon after the ODU game and the Miners have played the last six weeks of the regular season with seven scholarship players. They also have responded to adversity by winning four of their last seven games, including a 59-51 triumph over North Texas last Thursday on Senior Night.
The Miners begin the C-USA Postseason Tournament this afternoon in Frisco at the Ford Center. They are seeded 11 and will play Marshall at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on 600 ESPN El Paso with Traci Miller joining me courtside for the action. The two teams squared off in El Paso on January 31st and the Miners came out to a blistering 29-18 lead after one quarter and they still led by 11 at the half. However, the Thundering Herd outscored UTEP 28-15 in the second half and they narrowly edged the Miners 63-60.
"Marshall is a tough team because they are difficult to defend," Coach Baker said in the official release. "They get much of their scoring from the 3-point line. We will need to do a great job on their shooters and limit their open looks. The last time we played them it was a fantastic game, and we expect it to be the same kind of game at the conference tournament."
If UTEP is going to be able to win in the tournament, they will continue to need strong offensive production from juniors Katarina Zec and Zuzanna Puc. Zec has scored in double figures for ten straight games and she is playing the best basketball of her UTEP career. During this stretch, her offensive game has featured a combination of penetrating drives and perimeter shooting that the Miners had so badly needed. Meanwhile, Puc leads the team in points, rebounds, blocks, minutes, and field goal percentage. In addition, senior Jordan Alexander is another X-Factor for the Miners. She scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds against North Texas and provided terrific help when Puc was on the bench for much of the game in foul trouble.
Freshman post player Ariana Taylor has the ability to drain the three-point shot and her energy on both sides of the ball can be contagious. Foul trouble has been her biggest obstacle to overcome but she can help stabilize the Miners when she stays in the game. Since Gill's return against Marshall, the junior has been able to build up her minutes and in the process, is starting to get her production back to where it was before her injury. She scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench against Southern Miss a month ago, but that is the only game she has finished in double figures over the last nine contests. Finally, junior point guard Neidy Ocuane is the biggest wild card of the group. Despite averaging just 4.2 points per game, Ocuane has made some of the biggest baskets of the season for the Miners.
The C-USA Tournament is the ultimate challenge. The Miners would have to win four games in four straight days to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Although nobody expects that from a team that won just eight times in 29 regular season games, the opening round contest against Marshall could not be a better opponent for the Miners. They match up well against the Thundering Herd and want to avenge their home loss six weeks ago. UTEP will be a dangerous team this week in Frisco because nobody is giving them a chance to advance. That is extra motivation for Coach Baker and his Miners.