UTEP edges Middle Tennessee 56-55

Elina Arike flirted a double-double (13 points, eight rebounds) while Teal Battle added 13 points – including late clutch free throws –  and seven boards to help the UTEP women’s basketball team post a thrilling 56-55 victory over perennial Conference USA power Middle Tennessee to ring in the New Year in style at the Don Haskins Center Saturday afternoon.

It was a wild contest with seven ties and 15 lead changes, not to mention big runs from both sides. The Miners were up nine (51-42) with 6:18 to play in regulation before a 10-0 run by the Blue Raiders put them up one (52-51) with 3:20 left in the game. The two sides traded scores mostly at the charity stripe over the next couple of minutes, and UTEP was up by one (56-55) with 1:02 to play after two clutch free throws from Battle.

UTEP got a stop and the rebound, but MT came up with a steal and called timeout to set up a play with 33.2 seconds remaining in regulation. The Blue Raiders had two shots at it after an offensive board but both were off the mark-including one at the buzzer- as the Miners hung on for the one-point triumph.

It marked the Miners’ first victory in the series since their 2016 C-USA Championship run and second all-time against MT.

“[Great win] especially coming off a loss, a game we probably should’ve won. You never know how your young team is going to bounce back,” UTEP Head Coach Kevin Baker said. “But when you beat a perennial powerhouse like Middle Tennessee, it says something about your team and says something about your team’s character. It says a lot about what we were able to do today. [UTEP] fought and fought.”

Katia Gallegos (eight points, seven rebounds, four assists), Avery Crouse (nine points, five boards) and Destiny Thurman (seven points) also got after it for the Miners, who held Middle Tennessee to 32.8 percent shooting and 11 points below its seasonal scoring average.

After nearly three minutes of scoreless basketball, the Blue Raiders got on the board first with a triple. The Miners tallied the next four points in the contest to lead, 4-3, after a driving lay-up from Gallegos. MT countered with an 8-2 run to pull ahead by five (11-6) before the Orange and Blue halted things with a spinning lay-up in traffic by Brenda Fontana. The bucket was the beginning of seven straight for UTEP, including an old-fashioned 3-point play by Arike, to vault it back ahead (13-11) through 10 minutes of action.

The two sides traded scores at the onset of the second stanza, with five lead changes over the first three minutes of the period, with MT up by two (22-20) with 7:16 to play in the half. Defense then took over on both ends of the court, with only 10 points total combined the remainder of the frame. Six of those were courtesy of UTEP, allowing it to lead by two (26-24) heading into the locker room.

It was more back-and-forth action to begin the third quarter with a couple lead changes within the first 55 seconds. It was tied at 29 before UTEP tallied six straight points to secure its largest advantage (35-29) of the contest to that point. MT hit a triple to cut it to three, but it was answered immediately with seven straight points in the blink of the eye to suddenly propel the Orange and Blue by 10 (42-32).

Thurman initiated it with a trey from right in front of the Miners’ bench. UTEP then forced consecutive turnovers off a press the resulted in respective lay-ups by Crouse and Thurman, prompting a MT timeout. It was out to 11 (43-32) after a Battle free throw, but MT accounted for the final five points in the period to make it a six-point differential (43-37) heading into the fourth quarter.

Arike stemmed the surge with a pair of free throws to commence the final quarter, and UTEP inched the margin back to nine led by nine (51-42) with six-and-a-half minutes to play in regulation. MT struck back with a vengeance with the aforementioned 10-0 run to pull back ahead but UTEP did enough at the charity stripe and defensively down the stretch to win the game.

“When you’re up 11 [point], you know [Middle Tennessee] coming’s back,” Baker said. “That’s why I saved all my timeouts because I knew it would come down to the wire. Their program is too good and resilient. We were saving our timeouts and gassing up for what we knew what was going to be a close finale. But that’s some of the best defense we’ve played all year. The kids worked really hard at practice yesterday.”

UTEP will play at LA Tech on Thursday, Jan. 6 (5:30 p.m. MT). The Miners and Lady Techsters will be streamed on CUSA.tv, while fans can tune into the UTEP Miners app and listen to Mando Medina call the action.

UTEP will then play at Southern Miss on Jan. 8 (1 p.m. MT). The Miners and Golden Eagles will be streamed on ESPN+. The contest can be heard on “The Home of UTEP Basketball 600 ESPN El Paso”, and the UTEP Miners app with Medina on the mic.

The Miners will return to the Haskins Center for games against Charlotte on Thursday, Jan. 13 (7 p.m.) and ODU on Jan. 15 (1 p.m.).

Tickets start at $8 while groups of 10 can purchase tickets for $5 a piece. Fans can buy single-game tickets and season tickets (starting as low as $65) for the new campaign at the Eisenberg Family Ticket Office by calling (915) 747-UTEP, going online, emailing tickets@utep.edu, or in person at 500 W. University Ave., 79968-0579 (Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).

Gallery by Ruben R. Ramirez -El Paso Herald Post

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