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El Paso, TX — Kayla Thornton (22 points, 11 rebounds), Kristine Vitola (18 points) and Kelli Willingham (10 points) all hit double figures in scoring, and UTEP got stops down the stretch to down South Dakota State, 66-63, in the WNIT Semifinals in front of a capacity crowd (12,222) at the Don Haskins Center Wednesday.
The sell-out crowd was the second largest ever for a WNIT Semifinal game and eighth overall. Wyoming defeated Kansas State in 2007 in front of 12,225 fans.
UTEP, which equals the single-season school record with 29 wins, becomes only the second C-USA team to advance to the WNIT championship game (Houston in 2002). The Miners are now 5-0 in WNIT games and have led in attendance in all five rounds.
UTEP moves on to play host to Rutgers (27-9), which defeated South Florida on the road, 62-52, in the championship contest at 1 p.m. MT Saturday. The home match-up is possible due to the gracious decision by the Franklin Graham Festival of Hope to move its previously-scheduled event to another location on campus.
Tickets for the WNIT Championship game are $25 for floor seats, $15 general admission and $6 for UTEP students (with valid I.D.). The University Ticket Center, located at the corner of Mesa Street and Glory Road, will open at 8 a.m. on Thursday and the phone number is (915) 747-5234.
The Jackrabbits (26-10) shot a better percentage (22-55, 40.0 percent, 19-57, 33.3 percent) while also winning the rebounding battle (40-36) but the Miners overcame those challenges by forcing 21 turnovers and taking care of business at the charity stripe.
UTEP enjoyed a 20-9 advantage in points off turnovers while also doubling up the Jacks on second-chance points (18-6).
It was a wild, back-and-forth game featuring eight ties and 15 lead changes. The biggest advantage of the contest was nine (30-21) in favor of South Dakota State with 5:22 to play in the first half but UTEP had an answer.
The Miners wrapped a 13-0 run around halftime to secure a 34-30 advantage with 17:09 remaining in regulation. The two teams traded blows over the remainder of the stanza, and it was 52-51 in favor of the visitors with 5:16 to play in the contest.
The Miners struck back with a 9-3 push, capped by a pair of free throws from Vitola, to grab a 60-55 advantage with only 1:39 left in regulation. The margin remained six, 63-57, with 30 seconds to play before a trey from Megan Waytashek, who paced her squad with 14 points, cut it in half.
Nash nailed a pair of free throws to extend the margin out to five (65-60) with 13 seconds to go but SDSU refused to go away. Gabby Boever nailed another triple, its final of 10 in the tilt, to make it a two-point contest (65-63) with nine ticks left.
Kelli Willingham split a pair of free throws to give the visitors a chance at overtime but two chances by Steph Paluch and Mariah Clarin were off the mark, and the capacity crowd exploded in jubilation.
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