MIAMI, Fl.- Najala Howell poured in 21 points, including the game-winning free throws with 3.5 seconds left, as UTEP gutted out a 77-76 victory at FIU in the Conference USA opener for both squads Friday evening.
After the two charity stripe tosses by Howell, the Panthers’ (3-11, 0-1 C-USA) Kristian Hudson misfired on a triple at the buzzer to clinch the third straight win for the Miners (10-4, 1-0 C-USA). The victory is even more impressive considering that UTEP played the final 37 minutes of the contest without leading rebounder and scorer, Tamara Seda, who sustained an early injury.
It was a back-and-forth affair with 12 ties and 14 lead changes. The Miners led by two at the break before a 13-0 run in the third quarter afforded FIU a nine-point lead (52-45) with 2:45 to play in the frame. UTEP was able to cut the deficit to four heading to the fourth quarter and then completed the comeback by outscoring the Panthers, 24-19, over the final 10 minutes.
Zuzanna Puc filled in admirably for Seda with 18 points and 12 rebounds for her first double-double of the year off the bench. Roeshonda Patterson joined her in double figures with 12 points off the pine while also grabbing a career-high five rebounds. Faith Cook added nine points and a pair of helpers.
The Miners shot 49.2 percent (29-59) from the floor, including 41.2 percent (7-17) from 3-point range. UTEP was 12-16 on free throws, including Howell’s perfect 9-9 night.
FIU nailed 13 triples and shot finished at 43.1 percent (25-58) from the floor. Four Panthers hit double figures for scoring, including Alexis Gordon with 18 points.
“I had a tough team on the floor and we really scratched and clawed our way to the lead there and I just felt like our team wasn’t going to let them score,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “In this particular game we had a lot going against us but we wouldn’t just go away. That’s how you do it on the road. When things aren’t going well, you lose your primetime player in the first quarter, you’re down a bunch of points and our team just decided that they were going to toughen up and win. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
UTEP jumped out to an 8-4 lead, including a triple from Patterson, before FIU responded with seven consecutive points to secure an 11-8 cushion with 3:51 to play in the first quarter. The two sides went back-and-forth the remainder of the frame, and FIU held a slight 17-15 advantage through 10 minutes of action.
The Panthers’ Gordon drilled a triple early in the second quarter to give the home side a five-point lead (20-15) with 8:08 left in the half. UTEP countered by peeling off eight straight points. Howell started the sequence with a long 3-pointer. Puc then made a lay-up and after another stop Patterson capped the sequence with her second trey of the tilt. The margin remained five (28-23) with 4:16 to play in the period but FIU used a 9-4 surge to pull even at two. UTEP regained the lead (34-32) at the break thanks to an up-and-under move by Puc.
UTEP received a triple from Cook at the beginning of the third quarter to reinstate a five-point lead (37-32). The margin was four (43-39) with 5:46 left in the frame before FIU tallied 13 straight points in less than three minutes to vault out to a 52-43 advantage with 3:00 minutes to play in the period. Howell ended the difficult stretch with a pair of free throws but FIU quickly regained a nine-point lead (54-45) with two free throws by Shante Walker. The Miners didn’t wither away, though, but instead used back-to-back triples to cut the deficit to three (54-51).
FIU was able to go back ahead by six (59-53) after a jump shot by Hudson early in the fourth quarter but once again the Orange and Blue had an answer. It came in the form of an 8-0 run, including back-to-back steals and transition scores. The Miners managed to extend their advantage to four (65-61) but seven consecutive points from FIU put it back on top by three (68-65) with 5:20 remaining in regulation.
The Panthers were still up by three (73-70) with 2:55 left in the contest but UTEP was not finished. Puc made a lay-up in the lane to cut it to one off a feed from Cook. Katarina Zec then hit a jumper before a free throw by Cook gave the Miners a two-point edge (75-73) with 44 seconds left. Kayla Rogers drilled a triple from the left corner with 26 seconds. The Orange and Blue brought the ball into the front court and ran some time off the clock before calling timeout with 11 seconds left. Baker and his staff drew up a good play for Howell, who drove the hoop and was fouled. She calmly sank both charity stripe tosses and then UTEP guarded well at the other end to hang on for the win.
UTEP will be back in action at Florida Atlantic at 12 p.m. MST/2 p.m. EST Sunday. Brandon Cohn will have the call of the game which can be heard through the 600 ESPN El Paso App.