Five players scored in double figures as UTEP managed to hold off a pesky FIU team to win 83-79 on Thursday night in the Don Haskins Center.
With the victory, the Miners (18-8, 11-6 C-USA) are now tied for second in the league with WKU ahead of a meeting with the Lady Toppers next Thursday in Bowling Green.
The 18 wins are the most for UTEP in a single season under head coach Kevin Baker, as the program also improved to 27-0 under Baker when eclipsing 80 points. Overall, the Miners have won 29 in a row when reaching 80 in a game.
There were multiple moments of note in the win for the Miners, including Jazion Jackson making it a three-possession game with a 3-pointer with 2:50 on the clock to go up 72-65. Everything was working at that point for the Miners, who had numerous big baskets on the way to 27 fourth quarter points, including nine for Elina Arike.
“We finally found a little bit of offense that was working for us, and we just kept going to it and going to it,” Baker said. “We executed so well down the stretch, even so well that they (FIU) didn’t guard us anymore. They just started fouling us because we were getting what we wanted inside a lot. We got a couple layups off back picks. I thought our team really played intelligent basketball. With about six minutes to go they really zoned in and executed better than we had the whole night, and that speaks to what kind of team they are.”
Strong outside shooting kept the Panthers (12-14, 7-10 C-USA) close though right until the end, as FIU went 10-of-21 (48 percent) from beyond the arc in the loss.
A banked in top of the key 3-pointer by Sariana Rodriguez Camacho with 45.6 seconds remaining brought FIU within a pair at 76-74.
UTEP hit seven of its eight free throw attempts following the make to ice the game at the line as the Panthers eventually ended the contest with three players fouling out.
“Just a gutsy effort by our team,” Baker said. “We didn’t play our best defensive game today, but you have got to give FIU some credit. They played really well offensively. I’m proud of our team because we got stops when we had to get stops and then made some clutch free throws down the stretch.”
In a game that featured no shortage of offense, the Panthers presented a significant challenge for the Miners in the early going, hitting 13 of their first 18 shots. At one point, FIU hit eight straight towards the end of the first.
During a 41-second spurt in the opening quarter, the two sides combined to sink four straight triples as UTEP jumped out to a 13-8 lead.
The trend of offense ruling the day would continue throughout, as the Miners went 28-of-59 (47 percent) from the floor and FIU 27-of-49 (55 percent).
No quarter better illustrated the flow of the game than the second, which started at the tail end of a 9-0 UTEP run to end the first and start the second that was bookended by a driving layup by Adhel Tac.
Two more large runs followed before the half, including an 8-0 FIU rally to go up 32-30 and a 7-0 UTEP sequence that made it 39-35 just in advance of the break.
With the Miners up 49-40 in the third, FIU punched back with a 10-0 run that was capped with an Olivia Trice triple to take the advantage at 50-49.
At the end of the third, FIU led 58-56.
Despite all the offense throughout the night, some important defensive stands and forced turnovers late by UTEP proved to eventually be the difference.
Jackson led the charge in the forced turnover department, swiping five steals. Jackson also paced the Miners in scoring with 18 points while securing seven rebounds. She went 4-of-7 on 3-pointers, including hitting her first three on the way to 11 first quarter points.
“The fourth quarter is just winning time,” Jackson said. “Whoever wants it is who is going to come out with the win. I feel like every time we get on defense, it’s all about getting a stop. Whether we make a defensive mistake or not, we are ready to make the next stop and the next stop after that. We just play with a winning mentality in the fourth quarter. We play with a chip on our shoulder, and we continue to fight for the win.”
Avery Crouse tied her season high with 17 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“I feel like when that fourth quarter comes and that new 10 minutes goes on the clock that we all kind of look at that new realization that it’s lit and it’s time to go,” Crouse said. “If we don’t raise our level of play, then we are not walking out with a dub. It’s winning time, and we all kind of realize that and let each other know. We hold each other accountable and just get stops, make plays on the offensive end and get the dub.”
All five starters reached double digits, with Arike contributing 15 points, five rebounds and four assists, Tac generating 14 points, eight boards and two steals and N’Yah Boyd pouring in 12 points with a team-high seven assists.
An impressive bench effort was key for FIU, which tallied 47 points from its reserves, including a game-high 23 for Mihaela Lazic.
UTEP is set to honor its four seniors on Saturday at 1 p.m. when Florida Atlantic comes to town. The seniors include Erin Wilson, Mahri Petree, Sabine Lipe and Crouse.