FILE: UTEP #12 Sparkle Taylor was the 2016 C-USA Sixth Player of the Year for the regular-season champion Miners. She also helped UTEP earn runner-up honors at the 2014 WNIT and advance to the quarterfinals in 2016
Senior Sparkle Taylor (career-high tying 28 points) and sophomore Najala Howell (career-high 20 points) provided a nice one-two scoring punch but UTSA’s Tesha Smith converted a putback off Loryn Goodwin’s air ball with four seconds left in overtime to send her squad past UTEP 83-81, in the 2017 Conference USA opener for both squads Sunday afternoon.
Freshman Zuzanna Puc’s runner in the lane on the ensuing Miners’ (3-10, 0-1 C-USA) possession was a bit too strong, allowing the Roadrunners (5-7, 1-0 C-USA to eke out the win in a game which featured 10 ties and 14 lead changes.
It marked the first time UTEP went to overtime in its league opener since 2004-05 (its last year in the WAC). Coincidentally enough, that game (W, 71-69 vs. Boise State) was also played on January 1.
“That’s a “March Madness” feeling game,” UTEP head coach Keitha Adams said. “It was great, it was competitive. We fought. I’m really proud of our fight. We just have to continue to work. It was a very competitive game. T (Tamara Seda) fouling out (in OT) hurt us. We just struggled to put it away. I’m disappointed in the outcome for the team and the ladies, but we’re going to keep at it. It was a great atmosphere here today in the Haskins. The fans were spirited and we appreciate everybody’s support.”
UTSA looked poised to run away with things early on, bolting out to a 17-7 advantage just five minutes into the contest. UTEP battled back throughout the contest, culminating with Howell drilling a three pointer with 0.5 seconds left in regulation to send the contest to OT tied at 73.
“I thought Naj (Najala Howell) played really well today,” Adams said. “She hit a big three to put us into OT; we ran it just like we drew it up and executed it. Sparkle (Sparkle Taylor) got the hot hand and those two were going on all cylinders.”
After UTSA jumped out to a three-point (77-74) advantage early in OT the Miners struck back with six straight points to take their biggest lead (80-77, 2:24 OT) of the game. UTSA fought back, eventually regaining the lead after Crystal Chidomere, who rebounded Goodwin’s air ball, set up Smith for the game winner.
“That’s a tough break (UTSA offensive rebound off air ball) but if we go grab the ball we control our own destiny,” Adams said. “It was just a heads up, hustle play. We aren’t the best at grabbing the ball with two hands. You gotta give them (UTSA) credit. It was an air ball hustle play; they reacted and we didn’t and it cost us the game. That overtime, we’ve got to own the overtime. That’s a momentum boost for us. We missed a lot of shots around the basket. We were in it. We’ve got a young team, we’re learning and growing. It was a great game to be a part of. We are going to continue to work and continue to get better.”
Taylor matched her career high thanks to making the most field goals (13) by a Miner since 1999. Redshirt-Junior Tamara Seda recorded her second straight and fifth double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) on the year. Junior Lulu McKinney (11 points, eight assists) and Jakeira Ford (eight points, six rebounds) made their presence felt. Faith Cook recorded three assists, including one to set up Howell’s triple to tie it at the buzzer, while redshirt-freshman Jessica Barbosa grabbed a personal-best four boards.
Goodwin flirted with a triple-double for UTSA, piling up 26 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Smith (18 points, 11 rebounds) also recorded a double-double for Roadrunners. Kasia Kiejdrowska (12 points), Carlie Heineman (11 points) and Alexis Duncan (10 points) also hit double figures in scoring for the visitors.
UTEP made eight more field goals (34-82, 41.5 percent) while also shooting a better percentage than UTSA (26-70, 37.1 percent) but the Roadrunners overcame that through a barrage of three pointers (9-21) and living at the free-throw line
The Miners held advantages for both points in the paint (40-28) and second-chance points (18-14) but the Roadrunners took three times as many free throws. UTSA was 22-31 (71.0 percent) at the charity stripe while UTEP finished 8-10 (80.0 percent). Goodwin (12-13) actually had more makes and attempts at the line than the entire UTEP team.
Rebounds slightly favored UTSA (49-47). UTEP committed a season-low 11 turnovers and registered assists on 18 of its 34 field goals.
Visits from LA Tech (7:05 p.m., Thursday), Southern Miss (2 p.m. Saturday-Superhero Saturday and post-game youth clinic; first responders, medical professionals, law enforcement get $3 admission with ID) will conclude the Miners’ first three-game homestand to start league play since 2009.