Senior Sparkle Taylor erupted for a career-high 28 points but the youth-laden UTEP women’s basketball team was upended by Northern Arizona, 65-51, in the season opener for both squads at the Don Haskins Center Friday evening.
The visiting Lumberjacks (1-0) wrapped a 20-2 run around halftime to put the Miners (0-1) in a 15-point (36-21) hole with 7:28 to play in the third quarter. But Taylor, who was limited to four first-half points as result of picking up two early fouls, caught fire.
She put on an offensive clinic, scoring 18 of UTEP’s next 20 points in the game to fuel a 20-4 run and propel the home side back ahead (41-40) with 2:21 to play in the third period. After picking up her third foul late in the period, Taylor went to the bench and to their credit the Lumberjacks capitalized. They scored the next nine points of the contest to pull back ahead (49-41) with 7:39 left and UTEP could get no closer than seven the rest of the way.
All eight Miner newcomers saw action in the game, and the Miners even had five freshman on the court at junctures during the game. All four players (Taylor, junior Lulu McKinney, sophomore Najala Howell and redshirt-junior Tamara Seda) with collegiate experience played 19+ minutes, with McKinney logging a squad-high 34 minutes.
“We’ve got so many new players it’s going to take time for us to evolve,” UTEP head coach Keitha Adams said. “Northern Arizona deserved to win tonight’s game because they hit some big shots, hit the boards really hard and when they got offensive rebounds they made us pay for it. We had possessions that we took off on the defensive end and there were a few times we had some players who got tired and took a rest down at the other end. If we were to play the way we did tonight and win, that’s a bad lesson. Credit them. We’re going to have to get in the gym to work hard and continue to work to get better.”
Taylor nailed 9-of-18 from the floor and 10-12 (career high in makes) of her free throw attempts to keep the Miners within striking distance most of the night. Junior-college transfer Axelle Bernard (five point, five rebounds) and redshirt-junior Seda (five points, seven rebounds) got involved as well offensively but no one else on the squad contributed more than four points.
The Miners finished at 29.8 percent (17-57) from the floor, which was hindered by going 2-11 (11.8 percent) from three-point range. UTEP did, though, make 15-20 (75.0 percent) of its free thanks primarily to the efforts of Taylor.
NAU drilled 41.9 percent (26-62) of its shots from the floor. It was led bed Olivia Lucero (19 points), Brittani Lusain (18 points) and Rene Coggins (13 points) while Kaleigh Paplow came off the bench to grab 10 boards.
UTEP came out of the gates quickly, bolting to a 12-5 lead with 4:22 to play in the first quarter after Taylor drained a midrange jumper. The pendulum of momentum started to slowly swing toward the Lumberjacks, though, after Taylor was tagged with her second infraction with 2:23left in the opening quarter. NAU scored the final five points of the period to pull even.
Junior-college transfer Chanel Khammarath nailed a long three, off a feed from McKinney, to pull the Miners back ahead (17-14) early in the second frame. After the two sides traded layups, NAU started to take advantage of the youthful Miner line-up. It put together a 13-2 quarter-closing run to grab a 31-21 lead heading into the locker room.
The visitors scored the first five points of the third quarter to extend their cushion to 15 (36-2) before Taylor single-handily started to bring her squad back into the game.
The Miners will continue their season-opening three-game homestand by playing host to Texas Southern at 2 p.m. MST Sunday. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for kids.