RIVERSIDE, Ca.- Najala Howell poured in a career-high 23 points while Tamara Seda notched her second straight double-double (21 points, 14 rebounds) to help power the UTEP women’s basketball team to a wire-to-wire 73-62 win at UC Riverside Saturday evening.
The Miners (9-4) bolted out to a 20-point lead at the half and led by 17 with six minutes to play before the Highlanders (3-11) scored the next 12 points in the game to cut the margin down to five (67-62).
UTEP kept its composure while regaining momentum for good on a triple by Howell to help fuel a game-closing 6-0 run. Faith Cook, who finished with seven points and six assists, set up both field goals down the stretch.
UTEP connected on 43.9 percent (29-66) from the floor, aided by drilling 20-36 during the impressive opening half. The Miners dished out a season-high 20 assists while finishing with a season-low 14 turnovers for the second time in as many nights. Zuzanna Puc joined Howell and Seda in double figures for scoring with a campaign-high 15 points in 25 minutes of action off the pine.
It was an impressive win, considering that less than 24 hours ago UTEP outlasted Cal State Fullerton, 92-91, in double overtime. The effort allows the Miners to cap non-conference play at 9-4 on the season, which already surpasses the entire win total (8-23) from last season.
UCR was led by a 21-point, nine-rebound effort by Michelle Curry.
“I think that being in this situation last night really helped us tonight,” UTEP head coach Kevin Baker said. “Again we gritted our teeth and figured out a way to win. I’m proud of the team. It was a great road trip for us.”
UTEP raced out to a 9-0 lead just three minutes into the contest, forcing UCR to call a timeout. The home side was able to stem the tide temporarily and trailed by five (12-7) with 5:17 to play in the period. UTEP found another gear, though, closing the quarter on a 13-2 run to surge out to an 16-point advantage (25-9) through 10 minutes of action.
The 25 points established a first quarter season-high. Howell was crucial during the opening frame, accounting for more than half (13 of 25) of the Miners’ points in the frame. Her 13 points ranked tied as the fourth-highest individual scoring output in a quarter in program history.
UCR reduced the deficit to 13 (28-15) with 8:32 to play in the half before the Miners responded by ripping off seven consecutive points to vault out to a 20-point advantage (35-15) with 6:06 to play in the half. The two sides went back-and-forth the remainder of the period, and UTEP cruised into halftime armed with a 20-point lead (49-29).
It marked the highest scoring first half of the season for the Miners, in addition to the largest halftime advantage. Howell (15 points) and Seda (14) combined for 29 points in the period to match UCR’s team total.
Howell picked up where she left off in the third quarter with a triple on UTEP’s opening possession to put the Miners up 52-29. The margin remained 23 (56-33) with 4:31 left in the frame before UCR switched up its defensive strategies by deploying a full-court press.
The move paid off as it disrupted UTEP’s rhythm, with the Highlanders peeling off 11 straight points to cut the lead down to 12 (56-44) with 1:24 left in the quarter. The Miners registered the final three points in the frame, thanks to a free throw by Seda and a lay-up from Puc to carry a 15-point advantage (59-44) into the fourth quarter.
It was back-and-forth over the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, with UTEP maintaining a comfortable 17-point lead (65-48) with 6:29 remaining in regulation. UCR was determined to not go down without a fight, as it began to mount a furious comeback. The Highlanders ripped off a 12-0 run over the next four minutes to claw within five (67-62).
UTEP kept its composure, and Howell hit a wide-open trey from the wing to regain momentum. The Miners then got a stop before a lay-up by Seda put them up 10 (72-62) with 1:10 left. Cook added a free throw for good measure to cap the game-ending 6-0 push.
The Miners will return to action when they christen Conference USA play at FIU at 5 p.m. MST/7 p.m. EST on Friday. Brandon Cohn will have the call for 600 ESPN El Paso