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UTEP Women Host Arkansas State To Open WNIT

A milestone season will turn another one Friday as UTEP takes on Arkansas State in the opening round of the WNIT. Today we preview a possible postseason run led by a Hall of Fame Head Coach.

Tom Gonzales-MinerRush

The UTEP Women's basketball team, and El Paso Sports Hall of Fame inductee Keitha Adams open the school's inaugural WNIT run on Friday at the Don Haskins Center.

UTEP's senior trio of Kayla Thornton, Kristine Vitola, and Kelli Willingham continue the recent tradition of postseason regularity, marking their second postseason run as a group,  sporting a 91-36 record since they stepped on campus.

Thornton will forever be remembered as a UTEP legend, owning the school record in points in a career, and rebounds, the El Pasoan should enjoy a lengthy pro-career if she chooses.

The Miners rank second in Conference USA, and 25th nationally in points scored per game, the school record 78.0 point per game average is lead by Thornton who averaged 19 points a game for the season, and in a  MVP level she averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds during conference play.

With their ability to score in bunches during defensive lead runs, UTEP won 19 of their 23 regular season wins by double digits, they also have scored more than 80 points 16 times.

UTEP is at its best when the inside, outside game is working, and turnovers are being forced by UTEP's elite athleticism on defense.

Kristine Vitola averages 10.5 points per game, and when the offense is running through her and Thornton, things open up on the perimeter.

Kelli Willingham has lead UTEP's three point shooting barrage over her career, making her the all-time school leader in three pointers made with 207 in her career.  She is also second in school history in assists, and is one of only two players in program history who have over 1,000 points, and 300 assists.

Senior leaders describe the Killer K's, who have opened things up for some newcomers, and veterans who have really came on as of late.

Junior Chrishauna Parker is listed at 5'10, but the Houston native plays like she is 6'6, and has provided constant production all year long.  Ten times this year she has tallied over 10 rebounds a game, including a 16 rebound efforts against Southern Miss. in a regular season win.

Parker also scored a career high 21 points in that game, her mid-range to around the basket game can be deadly if she is not bodied up, making her a nightmare match-up for the opposition..

Freshman Sparkle Taylor had a streak of double digit scoring games off the bench down the stretch of the regular season, and is going to be solid player for the next three seasons.

Junior transfer, and El Pasoan, Stacie Telles has also emerged at point guard, splitting duties with Willingham, sinking 11 out of her last 18 attempts from behind the three point arch the past five games.

UTEP's bench has willed plenty of second half charges to put teams away, or scrounge back for a win.

Sophomore Jenzel Nash was named Conference USA' sixth player of the year.  The ultra quick guard out of Houston brings instant, hard to guard offense when her shooting numbers are efficient, and turnovers are minimal.

Nash brings high energy, effort, and a super athletic flair to the table, though went 1/12 from the field in the semi-final loss to Southern Miss., a night after dropping 23 points on La. Tech.  She brings another level, and versatility to the Miners offensive attack.

The Miners will be going up against the Sun Belt regular season champs in Arkansas State, who were 10 minutes way from a NCAA Tournament bid.

Leading 49-31 over future C-USA member Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Tournament Final, the Red Wolves allowed a 30-11 WKU run in the final 10:18 to fall 61-60, sending them to the WNIT.

Arkansas State is lead by Sun Belt Player of the Year Aundrea Gamble who averages 18.7 points per game, UTEP's Cameasha Turner usually draws the other teams leading scorer.

Jane Morill averaged 12.5 points per game, and earned second team league honors this season, she has also scored in double figures in six of her last seven games.

Four players average double figuring scoring numbers for A-State, including Jalen O'Bannon who also brings in 7.4 rebounds a game.

This is the ninth time as a program Arkansas State has made a WNIT appearance, they boast a 6-2 record in the first round, marking the fifth appearance under head coach Brian Boyer.

Like UTEP Arkansas State came up short against BCS conference foes, common opponent Texas A&M easily dispatched both UTEP and Arkansas State. Although UTEP had won three out of its last four, while the Red Wolves had won four straight before both were ousted in their conference tourneys.

For the Miners, forcing turnovers, and defensive rebounding is the key for a win, Arkansas State has held their opponent to under 60 points in five of their last six wins.

UTEP can not afford to go cold like the second half of the Southern Miss. game that saw them give up a lead, and also the Miners have to keep the turnover numbers down against the defensive Red Wolves, valuing every possession.

The winner will move on to face either St Mary's (California), or CSU Bakersfield, UTEP could quite possibly add another home game.

A tournament high five C-USA schools make up the 64-team WNIT field, UTEP will look to make more history when the college basketball lights shine its brightest, in the month of March.

Game Info

Arkansas State Red Wolves (22-11, 14-4) vs UTEP Miners (24-7, 12-4)

WNIT First Round, Don Haskins Center, 7 PM March 22nd.