FRISCO, Texas – Elina Arike scored a career-high 23 points as No. 4 seed UTEP went toe-to-toe with No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee on Friday night in a 68-62 loss in the semifinals of the Conference USA Championships inside the Ford Center at The Star.
After playing close games all season, the Miners (20-11, 12-8 C-USA) did so once again in what was the school-record 22nd single-digit contest for the season.
A 7-0 run over a 57-second stretch late in the third and early in the fourth erased what was a six-point deficit and put UTEP on top. The run was the culmination of a comeback effort that wiped away what at one point was a 15-point Middle Tennessee (27-4, 18-2 C-USA) lead.
It was N’Yah Boyd who gave UTEP the advantage with a layup courtesy of a Jazion Jackson steal that allowed the Miners to get out in transition for the easy look.
As would be expected from the 25th-ranked team in the country, the Lady Raiders immediately responded to the punches, rattling off seven straight points in response to jump on top 54-48 with 6:49 left on a Kseniya Malashka layup.
Middle Tennessee never relinquished the lead, building the advantage up to nine at one point before a spurt by the Miners made things interesting late.
Trailing 61-52 with just 3:15 on the clock after a big 3-pointer by Courtney Whitson, UTEP once again used a 7-0 run to get right back in it, highlighted by a nice Arike find to Adhel Tac for a layup to cut it to five and then an Arike right-wing triple shortly after to bring the Miners within a pair at 61-59 with just over a minute remaining.
“Elina has really become the player that we all believed that she could become,” UTEP Head Coach Kevin Baker said. “I don’t think she believed it her first couple of years here, but you can see that she has figured out that she is an elite player with a lot of tools. She can do so many things offensively and defensively, and boy, we sure leaned on her this season. She played great for us.”
Another Whitson 3-pointer on the next possession would essentially deliver the dagger, as the sharpshooter put the finishing touches on an 18-point performance.
“That was the dagger,” Baker said. “The thing that bothers me about it is that it wasn’t off any action. It was just an off action that we guard on a day-to-day basis. It was just that young lady down there making a play, and you have got to tip your hat. They wanted to win, and she made it happen.”
In the first half, both teams traded large runs to swing the trajectory of the game in a big way, starting with 11 unanswered Middle Tennessee points to put the Lady Raiders up 29-14. A 13-3 UTEP run entering the half though brought the Miners within five at 32-27 at the break.
Despite struggling from the floor over the first 20 minutes, UTEP kept things close thanks largely in part to a 12-of-13 effort from the free throw line.
For the game, the Miners would go on to hit 23-of-26 (88.5 percent) at the charity stripe. The 23 made free throws is tied for the second most in a conference tournament game in program history.
“The first half wasn’t really who we are,” Baker said. “We didn’t play well in the first half. It’s very hard against a team like Middle Tennessee, as good as they are, to mount some type of comeback, and we did. I’m so proud of our team for that. That’s a young team in there. It doesn’t seem like it, but almost everybody could theoretically come back, and I hope that they do because they are building something special.”
Neither team built any separation in the third, with the Miners outscoring the Lady Raiders by a point in the quarter to stick within two possessions at 47-43 entering the final 10 minutes.
UTEP dealt with foul trouble throughout the contest, however the Miners were able to have no players foul out of the game despite three reaching four on the night.
In addition to the big Arike performance, Boyd netted 18 points and four assists with multiple highlight-worthy plays.
Arike made the most of her opportunities at the free throw line, hitting all 10 of her tries.
Jalynn Gregory led the scoring for Middle Tennessee with 22 points to lead her team to an appearance in the conference tournament title game on Saturday afternoon against the winner of WKU and UTSA.
UTEP was 18-of-49 (36.7 percent) overall from the floor and Middle Tennessee shot 23-of-59 (39 percent).
The Miners will now await word on Sunday to find out about a potential postseason tournament opportunity. Check back to UTEPMiners.com for the most up-to-date information.