Zuzanna Puc came off the bench to score 16 points while Jordan Alexander added 12 but visiting Middle Tennessee rode the hot hand of Anna Jones (30 points) to a 54-45 conquest of UTEP at the Don Haskins Center Saturday afternoon.
The Blue Raiders (10-7, 2-2 C-USA led 23-22 with 8:57 to play in the third quarter before they peeled off 15 straight points to put the Miners (11-6, 2-2 C-USA) in a 16-point hole (38-22) with 2:35 to play in the frame. UTEP, as has been the case all year, proved to be a resilient club by cutting that deficit in half (43-37) with 6:43 remaining in regulation. Jones, though, nailed one of her eight triples in the contest to end the 15-5 run and the Orange and Blue could get no closer than seven the rest of the way.
“I just thought that they had a really good game plan for us defensively all over the place,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “I’m extremely proud of our team. I thought we went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the conference. The resiliency of this team should never be in question because we gave ourselves a chance to win. We are going to go back, watch the film and figure out a way to get better.”
UTEP actually shot a better overall field-goal percentage (18-44, 40.9%) than Middle Tennessee (16-46, 34.8%) but the visitors made up for that by drilling 12 triples to UTEP’s one and winning the boards (34-28). The Blue Raiders also had a 12-0 advantage for second-chance points.
The Miners’ two leading scorers (Tamara Seda and Najala Howell) were held to a combined six points, with Middle Tennessee really clamping down on the duo. That led to some opportunities for Puc, who drained 8-11 from the floor to key the charge offensively for UTEP. Alexander also hit double digits in scoring, aided by going 6-9 at the charity stripe, while Faith Cook pitched in seven points and four assists.
Ultimately the difference in the game came down to Jones, who had a career day. She entered the game contributing 2.4 points per game and had made 7-39 (17.9 percent) from 3-point range on the season. Jones then proceeded to drill 8-13 from beyond-the-arc and 10-17 overall for the 30-point outburst.
Middle Tennessee jumped out to a 7-2 lead with 4:53 to play in the first half. UTEP tightened things up defensively, holding the Blue Raiders scoreless the remainder of the frame. At the other end the Miners found some cracks in the vaunted Middle Tennessee defense to peel off five straight points and tie the tilt at seven through 10 minutes of action. Jordan Alexander hit a jumper and later split a pair of free throws before Cook found Katarina Zec for a fastbreak lay-up.
The Miners scored back-to-back baskets to open the second quarter, making it a 9-0 run wrapped around the break that gave them a four-point cushion (11-7). The visitors struck back with consecutive triples to regain the lead, and eventually pushed it to 20-15 with 3:20 left in the half. The Orange and Blue pitched a shutout the rest of the period while getting two from throws from Alexander and a pair by Zec to cut the deficit to one (20-19) heading to halftime.
The teams traded baskets at the onset of the third quarter before Middle Tennessee tallied 15 straight points to surge out by 16 (38-22) with 1:30 to play in the frame. UTEP ended the scoreless drought of more than six minutes when it got two free throws from Alexander. After Middle Tennessee split a pair of charity stripe tosses, Cook sunk a three and Howell hit a pull-up jumper to trim the deficit to 10 (39-29) heading to the fourth quarter.
The Miners refused to quit, and after an up-and-under lay-up by Alexander they trailed by just six (43-37) with 6:43 to play. The Blue Raiders came down where Jones connected on her seventh triple of the tilt. UTEP continued to fight down the stretch and was within seven (46-39) after a jumper by Cook. Incredibly enough, Jones delivered her eighth and final 3-pointer of the contest to reinstate a double-digit margin for the visitors and seal the Miners’ fate.
UTEP will return to action when it wraps up its three-game homestand against Florida Atlantic at 7 p.m. MST Thursday. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for kids and may be purchased by calling 915-747-5234