UTEP Women’s Basketball is Soaring To a Hot Start
UTEP women's basketball might not draw 6,000 people a night, but the roar of the faithful fans in the Don Haskins Center when UTEP scored 8 points in under a minute from their ferocious defense on Saturday made it feel like they have thousands packed in attendance.
At 10-3, UTEP is off to their best start since the 2015-16 season, when they started 18-1 and ended 29-5 with a WNIT Elite 8 finish. That was the final time UTEP would reach the postseason under former head coach Keitha Adams. If UTEP can get anywhere close to that this year, Miner fans will be in for a treat.
Quick starts are not something the team is new to under head coach Kevin Baker. UTEP has started off great plenty of times, but it’s after the New Year begins that things begin to calm down. For example, last year, UTEP started 10-4, before fizzling out and finishing 14-15 with a disappointing first-round loss in the C-USA tournament to a sub-par UTSA team. Granted, UTEP dealt with a lot of injuries and COVID issues last year. But nonetheless, it was an upsetting end to the season for many Miner fans.
Another example comes in the 2019-2020 season, which saw the Miners start 10-4 but end 16-14. The bottom line is some fans were, and still are, skeptical of this team just because of how they begin to fizzle out around this time. However, the feel around this team is entirely different from previous years.
The Miners have quality wins, unlike other years. Those wins include a sweep of conference foe LA Tech (who is 4th in C-USA NET rankings), a dominant wire-to-wire victory over 9-5 UAB, a thrilling OT win against Texas State, and a sweep over rival NMSU. In each of their 3 losses, UTEP has been in it till the very end. It took late runs from Rice (2nd in C-USA NET Rankings) and a solid Sacramento State to beat the Miners.
Now, I am not trying to make excuses for this team. The Air Force game should’ve been a win, even with how badly the Miners were injured, simply because it’s been like that the whole year. UTEP has dealt with injuries since day one. OSU transfer and leading scorer N’Yah Boyd missed the first two games of the season with an injury, and one of Mahri Petree, who looked like she was having a breakout season, has been out with a concussion since game two against UMKC. Elina Arike, one of the Miner’s best forwards, missed her share of games with a nagging back injury, which is still a problem for her. The same goes for Eliana Cabral, who missed almost a whole month with a back injury. To add onto that, 2 of UTEP’s JUCO acquisitions from the offseason—sharpshooter Veonce Powell and all-around guard Zhane Thompson—have yet to see the court this year due to rehabbing prior injuries. Along with that, Baker has continued to allude to the adversity this team has faced throughout the season.
When Kevin Baker and his staff saw their two leading scorers enter the transfer portal, they knew this team would have a whole new identity. Under Baker, UTEP has been a good defensive team. This year, UTEP has taken defense to a whole new level. This team was built around defense. Last season, we saw players like Avery Crouse, Erin Wilson, and Eliana Cabral step up and shut opposing guards down. Luckily for the Miners, they returned that whole group and added Jazion Jackson and N’Yah Boyd to that list, who both play exceptional defense.
As if that weren’t enough, former Miner Sabine Lipe returned after she had a stint with NAU to play her final season in El Paso. Miner fans remember Lipe for being a tough defender and a great pickpocket. Those six players alone have combined to get 75 out of UTEP’s 101 steals this season. UTEP creates offense from their defense. There isn’t anyone keeping track of it, but if I had to guess, UTEP would lead the conference in points scored off turnovers. They score in bunches. They frustrate opposing teams with their different types of full-court press until eventually they force a 10-second violation or get the steal. They are easily one of the most fun teams I’ve ever got to watch.
Obviously, every team has a weakness, and this team’s weakness is closing games out. The Miners led by as much as 11 with 3 minutes left in regulation against LA Tech but they allowed the Lady Techsters to climb back into the game and get as close as 2 points before UTEP hit a couple of free throws to ice the game. Against Rice, UTEP was right there for 3 quarters, until it looked like they ran out of gas and their offense went stagnant. The same thing can be said about their other loss against Sac. State. The Miners competed for 3 quarters until their offense went stagnant and would end up losing by 9. Late game execution, especially on offense, needs to be better if the Miners want to be a contender for the C-USA championship, but other than that, there aren’t any real glaring weaknesses or holes in this team.
One could say frontcourt depth, with UTEP only using 3 real bigs (Arike, Thaniya Marks, and Adhel Tac). But even when Arike went down, coach Baker wasn’t afraid to go small. Players like Crouse and freshman Soleil Montrose fit the mold of the “big guard” Baker loves to use when UTEP needs to go small. UTEP has gone with a 4-guard lineup and won’t shy away from doing so if needed. It’ll just be a matter of if it is successful because UTEP more than likely practices those types of situations daily.
There is no excuse for UTEP not being at the top of C-USA attendance when it comes to women's basketball. These players deserve it, and along with that, they have a fun, fast-paced, defensive-oriented play style Miner fans would love. Kevin Baker and company and slowly leading UTEP back to its glory days with Keitha Adams, and more fans need to take notice.