NEW ORLEANS, La.- UTEP turned in its best defensive effort of the year in an impressive 46-33 victory against Samford in its opening game inside historic Fogelman Arena Thursday evening.
The Miners (7-3) advance to challenge host Tulane (7-5) in the championship contest of the classic at 2 p.m. MST/3 p.m. CST Friday while the Bulldogs (6-7) will play Troy in the consolation tilt after having their three-game winning streak snapped.
UTEP set season bests for fewest points allowed (33) and defensive field-goal percentage (20.8 percent). That defensive field-goal percentage ranks as the sixth best in program history. The Miners never trailed in the contest, and at one point led by as many as 26 (44-18), which is their biggest advantage of the campaign.
UTEP was up 19-9 at the break. It marked the first time that the Miners held an opponent to fewer than 10 points in a half since keeping NM State to eight on Nov. 29, 2011. The Orange and Blue ended any aspirations of a comeback by Samford after they started the second half on a 10-0 run.
Najala Howell tallied 12 points to go along with eight rebounds to lead the way for the Miners. Roeshanda Patterson (eight points, career-high four rebounds), Zuzanna Puc (eight points, four rebounds), Tamara Seda (seven points, eight boards) and Jordan Alexander (seven points, seven rebounds, four charges) also got after it for the Orange and Blue.
The Miners finished at 34.0 percent (16-47) from the floor, aided by a sizzling 61.5 percent (8-13) during the third quarter. UTEP also won the rebounding battle (49-30) for the 10th time in as many tilts this season.
Hannah Nichols led Samford with a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds).
“Tonight Samford just had a poor shooting performance for them but from our point of view we had to make them shoot perimeter shots,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “We wanted to make sure the first four minutes of the third quarter was ours. I was proud of us for playing better in the third. It was the biggest thing that our team did today in this particular game.”
It was a sluggish start offensively for both teams, with the game tied at two after six minutes of action. The Miners broke the scoreless drought of more than three minutes with a bullish post move by Seda. Patterson was then fouled on a drive to the hoop and she converted both tosses. Alexander made it six straight points with an offensive rebound and putback before Seda ended the eventual 7-0 surge by splitting a pair of free throws. The advantage was five (9-4) at the quarter break, with Samford going more than eight minutes without a field goal.
The Bulldogs received back-to-back baskets to trim UTEP’s lead to one (9-8) with 6:30 left in the half. The Orange and Blue had an answer, which came in the form of an 8-0 run over the next three-and-a-half minutes. Katarina Zec started it with two tosses at the charity stripe before Puc scored on a driving lay-up. Patterson then came up with a steal and a coast-to-coast score, which was followed by a pretty post move by Puc to cap the sequence. The Bulldogs halted the sequence with a free throw from Nichols but Patterson sunk a pull-up jumper to send the Miners into the locker room armed with a double-digit advantage (19-9).
UTEP kept the momentum to start the third quarter, ripping off 10 consecutive points to jump out to a 20-point advantage (29-9) with 6:52 to play in the frame. Howell was instrumental in the stretch by scoring six of the 10 points, including a run-closing old-fashioned 3-point play. Samford stopped the surge with a triple by Cassidy Williams. UTEP struck back with back-to-back baskets from Puc, with Patterson setting her up both times off the drive. The two teams traded scores over the next few minutes before the Miners accounted for the final five points of the frame to lead by 24 (42-18) through three quarters of action.
After the Miners scored the first two points of the frame on two Howell free throws, Samford put together a 13-2 run over the next eight minutes to whittle the deficit down to 15 (46-31). It was far too little too late, though, with the Miners closing out the wire-to-wire victory with a comfortable margin.
UTEP’s game at Tulane will broadcast locally in El Paso on 600 ESPN El Paso.