The magical WNIT run continues for the UTEP Women's basketball team, after a hard fought, forty minute, mid-major heavy weight fight in the WNIT Final Four, surviving a very good, and cerebral South Dakota State 66-63 in front of a sold out Don Haskins Center.
The Jackrabbits showed no fear of the rowdy El Paso crowd from the jump, knocking down their first four attempts from three, and their first six field goals overall, holding a 14-9 early lead after jumper from Megan Waytashek at the 15:54 mark.
After Sparkle Taylor pulled the Miners within two at 21-19 with 8:52 left in the first half with a made jumper of her own, South Dakota State would go on a 9-2 run finished off by another triple from Waytashek, that put UTEP in a 30-21 hole with five minutes left in the half.
Then, as Keitha Adams has done all year, she called for her deadly half court trap to slow down the hot shooting visitors from the north.
Despite taking a 30-26 lead into halftime, the three pointer from Waytashek at the 5:22 mark was the last field goal SDSU would muster until Chyna Stevens got free for a layup at the 16:39 mark of the second half, stopping a 13-0 UTEP run, trimming UTEP's lead to 34-32.
As mentioned this was just an all out heavy weight, blow for blow affair that featured 15 lead changes, and eight ties.
Both teams traded buckets from the 16:39 mark until Kayla Thornton got her own rebound off her own blocked shot, muscling it back in the bucket to give UTEP a 57-53 lead with 3:24 to go, which was the largest margin of that second half stretch for either side.
Despite shooting just 33 percent from the field, UTEP again lived at the free throw line, athletically, and methodically powering their way to line 30 times converting on 23 attempts.
Two free throws from Kristine Vitola put UTEP ahead 60-55 with 1:39 to go, but the Jackrabbits would not go quietly down the stretch.
Chrishauna Parker leaked free for a breakaway fast break layup with 30 seconds left to put the Miners up 63-57, but Waytashek answered on the ensuing possession with a triple, prompting a quick foul on the in-bounds.
Jenzel Nash sank both of her tries from line, stretching the lead back to 65-60, but this time is was Gabby Boever who sank one from deep that cut the lead to 65-63.
Kelli Willingham was fouled immediately, splitting her pair, giving the Jackrabbits one last breath, trailing 66-63 with just eight ticks left.
Steph Paulch raced up court off the rebounder's pass of Willingham's miss on her second attempt, and fired a good looking triple from the right wing that would come up short, sending the Miners on their way to the WNIT Championship game.
Waytashek lead South Dakota State with 14 points, but the Jackrabbits were forced into 21 turnovers that lead to 20 UTEP points, as the Miners flexed their athleticism when they switched to that trap, frustrating, and keeping the Jackrabbits just a step behind in the final ten minutes.
UTEP's senior trio all scored in double figures lead by Thornton with 22 points, to go along with 11 rebounds, Vitola scored 18 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, while Kelli Willingham finished with 10 points, including some huge triples in the first half to keep the Miners at bay during South Dakota State's hot start.
The Miners were out rebounded 40-36, but held a 16-8 edge in second chance points, thanks to 12 team offensive rebounds.
UTEP will now face Rutgers, and thier legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer who never trailed in the second half as they beat South Florida 62-52 in the other WNIT Final Four match-up of the night.
The Miners and Scarlet Knights will face off Saturday afternoon at 1:00 PM Mountain Time, in-front of a National TV audience via the CBS Sports Network, and another sold out building in which tickets were evaporated from a huge swarm of fired up fans in just two hours after this win.