MINERS
UTEP-Western Kentucky Preview

Jareica Hughes averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 assists in the Conference USA tournament. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Jareica Hughes averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 assists in the Conference USA tournament. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

March 20, 2008

UTEP's NCAA Tournament Central

With a loss in the Conference USA championship game, UTEP knew it would have to sweat out an at-large bid to the NCAA Women's tournament.

After 34 years without going, the extended wait was only fitting.

The seventh-seeded Miners will look to win their debut NCAA tournament game Saturday when they face No. 10 seed Western Kentucky in a first-round game in Stanford, Calif.

UTEP (27-3) had won 23 straight games and went 16-0 during the Conference USA regular season, but lost the conference tournament title game 73-57 to SMU on March 9.

Not earning the automatic bid ensured the 23rd-ranked Miners would have an agonizing eight-day wait to find out if they had been selected to their first-ever tournament. On Monday, they got the good news.

"The word is we're going dancing," coach Keitha Adams shouted after the pairings were announced. "Young ladies, you've made history."

Their opponent will be the 10th-seeded Lady Hilltoppers, who have a rich postseason history. Western Kentucky (26-7) has been to 16 NCAA Women's tournaments and has made it to three Final Fours. It appeared in the championship game in 1992, when it lost to Stanford, its potential second-round opponent.

The Lady Hilltoppers last made the tournament in 2003 and last won a game in 2000 - also as a No. 10 seed - beating Marquette 68-65.

UTEP will be looking to bounce back from its first defeat since Dec. 1. The Miners' other losses prior to the Conference USA title game came on the road to a pair of Big 12 opponents - Nebraska and Kansas State.

The Miners feature a balanced offense with four players averaging in double figures, led by guard Jareica Hughes' 14.7 points. The sophomore is scoring 20.5 points per game in her last eight, and averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 assists in three conference tournament games.

 

 

A pair of seniors are the other top offensive threats for the Miners. Guard Natasha Lacy is averaging 16.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists in her last 10 games, and she ranks in the nation's top 10 in steals at 3.2 per game.

Center Izabela Piekarska, meanwhile, does most of UTEP's damage inside. She averaged 16.3 points in the conference tournament and is third in Conference USA with 2.4 blocks per game.

The Lady Hilltoppers enter the NCAA tournament on a seven-game winning streak after winning their three Sun Belt conference tournament games by an average of 12.5 points.

They earned their first automatic bid since 2003 with a 65-49 victory over Middle Tennessee in the championship game on March 11.

"We're just very, very proud of our basketball team," said coach Mary Taylor Cowles. "This is just an awesome feeling - and it's been a while."

Sun Belt player of the year Crystal Kelly is Western Kentucky's top player. She is seventh in the nation in scoring with an average of 22.7 points, and tied for seventh with 10.6 rebounds.

She's the first player in the program's history to have her jersey retired while still in school.

Freshman forward Arnika Brown has come on recently to give the Lady Hilltoppers a nice 1-2 punch inside along with Kelly. She's averaging 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds over her last four games.

The winner of this game will face either second-seeded Stanford or 15th-seeded Cleveland State on Monday.