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Injuries weighed down on team

Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 13:05

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File Photo / The Prospector

Junior point guard, Kelli Willingham, drives the ball past a Tulane defender in a game during the 2012-13 regular season.

   UTEP ended the season with its second consecutive 20-plus win season, finishing at 22-10, going 14-3 at the Don Haskins Center.

Starting the season with adversity, the women’s team lost two of its key players, senior center Kristine Vitola and sophomore guard Jenzel Nash in the first two weeks. That didn’t stop them from getting off to a school record 17-2 start, beating notable teams such as Arizona State, Arizona, New Mexico State and Kansas State.

“I don’t think a lot of teams would have done what we did this year and how we’ve handled it-with two players going down with ACL injuries, with limitations and not that much depth on our bench. These guys battled and we handled it,” said head coach Keitha Adams.

A third injury affected the Miners midway through the season, when  freshman guard, Zuberi Allen, tore her ACL, putting an extra load on the Miners’ starting unit.

The team went on to finish 3-7 to conclude the regular season and their injuries came back to get them in the tournament when they were playing their third straight game in three days.

There was no dancing this year for UTEP women’s basketball team, as a loss to the UCF Knights in the semifinals in the conference tournament brought their season to an end.

Entering the tournament as a 5th seed and the defending champions, UTEP needed to win four games in four straight days to try and get back-to-back NCAA tourney bids.  The Miners started day one hot, taking care of the lowest seed, Marshall.  The following day, down by eight with six minutes left in the game, UTEP came back to beat 4th seed UAB by two points to advance to the semifinals.

Meanwhile, UCF came in as the 8th seed and surprised everyone after they upset the top team in conference, the SMU Mustangs in the second round of play.  When the Knights and Miners met, each got off to a hot start as neither team could miss in the first half and UTEP held a three-point lead at halftime.  UCF continued the hot shooting but the Miners couldn’t keep up in the second half as fatigue started to show and the Knights ran away with the game to advance to the conference finals, where they would lose to Tulsa.

“We could have played better defense. They have some good guards, good perimeter and have some good inside people,” said junior guard Kelli Willingham.  “But, when we scored or made it to the line, they came right back and answered, we needed to play better defense.”

The only senior on the court was Anete Steinberga.  The 6-foot-2 center out of Latvia soared in her final year at UTEPSteinberga became the leading scorer on the team averaging 16 points per game and grabbing seven rebounds a game.  She finished her career at UTEP with 1,024 total points (8th all-time in school history), earned first team all-conference honors this season and finished the year with a school record 23 straight double digit scoring games.

“She’s been a coach’s dream. Her work ethic is unbelievable, great in the classroom, great teammate, great focus, took basketball really seriously, great student, never caused me a problem off the floor, and she’s produced,” Adams said.  “She’s helped us win games. It’s been an honor to have her and coach Anete.”

Most of the players look to be coming back next season as it was announced that Vitola would return for another senior year as well as second leading scorer, junior forward Kayla Thornton.  UTEP left a big mark on Steinberga as she emotionally recalls being there for four years.

“I told them in the locker room that I would not want to play for any other team. I loved their work and hustle, they never give up,” she said. “The school has been great, I’ve learned so much, not only about basketball but about my teammates and outside of basketball. Coach Adams has always been good to me and my teammates have been great. I’m going to miss my school and playing again. I wish them the best of luck next year.”

Albert Gamboa may be reached at prospector@utep.edu.

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