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UTEP Blanks Rice 1-0 to Surge Into C-USA Semifinals

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Junior Jeanna Mullen hammered home a header (24’) and All-Conference USA third-team GK Alysaa Palacios recorded seven saves to help No. 7 seed UTEP shutout No.2 seed Rice, 1-0, in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Conference USA Championships.

All C-USA first-team MF Aleah Davis set up Mullen’s goal with a long throw-in and the Miner (13-6-2) defense did the rest to post the school-record tying 11th shutout of the season against the white-hot Owls (11-5-1). Rice had entered the league’s pinnacle event riding a seven-game win streak (longest active in C-USA), which included a 3-0 win in El Paso earlier this year.

Not only does the triumph avenge that setback, it propels the Orange and Blue into the semifinals they will face the winner of WKU/Charlotte at 5 p.m. MDT Friday. The match will be streamed live on C-USA TV.

“Today’s win ranks as one of the best in program history,” UTEP head coach Kevin Cross said. “We beat the hottest team in Conference USA as Rice had won seven straight and are ranked the highest in C-USA around #45 nationally. We won because of our energy level and sacrifice. Every player emptied their tank today and left it all out on the field. We played team defense where when one player got beat, we had each other’s back. That team defense set a UTEP record for the most shutouts.  We know what it takes to win a tough Conference USA tournament game now.  We will need to repeat that effort and sacrifice in the semis.”

Rice generated a pair of early chances with a corner kick but Samantha Chaiken’s header (3’) was off the mark while Palacios turned away Jenny Fichera’s shot (4’). Good marking by the Miner defense made it tough for Annie Walker to get a clean look, with Palacios scooping up the left-footed shot (8’).

UTEP then got its offense on track, with Mullen using a sensational individual effort to create some space. From about 22 yards out she laced a shot that sailed past the outstretched hands of Rice GK Samantha Colley and appeared destined for the back of the net. The ball dipped only to cruelly clank off the crossbar. Four minutes later Mullen unleashed a header that screamed in on Colley but she came up with the clean save.

The Owls used a sneaky thru ball to get a point-blank look for Aliza Wolfe but Palacios stoned her. That saved proved to be even bigger four minutes later, with the Miners getting on the board. Davis made one of her patented long-range throw-ins that found Mullen’s head. She redirected it brilliantly into the back of the net.

Rice looked poised to net the equalizer six minutes later but Palacios would not have it. She was perfectly positioned to corral the header from Darcy Mickalow. The Miners had a good chance to extend their lead before halftime but Bri Thomas’s rocket (40’) whistled just wide.

The Orange and Blue played with poise and purpose in the second half. Rice did manage 10 shots in the frame, but the close marking by Miner defense prevented the majority of them from getting on target. Palacios was called upon to make just two saves over the final 45 minutes.

Both stops by Palacios came midway through the period. She erased the chance (61’) by Marissa Topolski before denying Wolfe.

UTEP did well to balance pushing to seek an insurance tally while maintaining possession and the lead. Cross also wisely kept the Miners’ fresh with a steady dosage of subs.

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