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Junior Kayla Thornton poured in 22 points while Irene Gari (11 points) and Anete Steinberga (10 points) also reached double figures to help propel UTEP to a 60-45 conquest of I-25 rival New Mexico in front of a season-best 3,091 fans at the Don Haskins Center Thursday evening.
The Miners (10-1) enjoyed a wire-to-wire lead against the Lobos (8-4) en route to posting their fifth straight victory while also staying unbeaten at home (7-0) on the year.
UTEP turned in a dominant defensive effort, forcing the visitors into 20 turnovers and keeping them to 35.7 (20-of-56) percent from the floor. Those giveaways led to 22 points for the Miners, who have now held four straight foes to fewer than 50 points.
Rebounds also went in favor of the home side (42-41), aided by a 28-19 cushion over the final 20 minutes. UTEP outscored UNM 34-24 in the second half, including a 14-3 surge to the finish line after the Lobos had crept within four (46-42) with 4:18 to play.
“Our defense, especially the first half, was outstanding,” UTEP head coach Keitha Adams said. “New Mexico is athletic, long and has a very good program. Us winning the boards against them was huge was as well.”
The Miners were challenged to knock down shots at times, finishing at 28.1 percent (16-of-57) in the contest. They compensated for that, though, through the aforementioned effort on defense and rebounding, in addition to timely three-point shooting and a big advantage on free throws.
UTEP drilled 8-of-20 (40.0 percent) from beyond the arc, with Thornton going 4-of-8 and Gari connecting on 3-of-5. The Miners also hit 20-of-29 free throws, with Steinberga, Thornton and Chrishauna Parker combining to make 16-of-21.
The Lobos didn’t have much luck in that department, finishing just 1-of-3 from the charity stripe. The three attempts tie as the fewest in a game by an opponent in program history.
Parker flirted with a double-double before settling for eight points and a game-high nine rebounds while Kelli Willingham pitched in seven points and secured five boards.
UTEP raced out to a 7-0 lead and extended the edge to 10 (16-6) with 9:22 to play in the first half after a couple of free throws from Saidah Zuberi Allen. The Lobos struck back and managed to trim the deficit to five (26-21) at the break.
The onset of the second half mirrored the opening period, with the Orange and Blue ripping off 12 straight points to secure what would be their largest lead (38-21) of the evening. Thornton accounted for 10 of the points during the big run while Parker added a lay-up off a put back.
The Lobos continued to play catch-up for the remainder of the contest, eventually getting within four (46-42) with 4:18 remaining in regulation. UTEP never lost its composure, though, putting things out of reach with eight straight points as part of a 14-3 surge to close out the contest in style.
The Miners will enjoy a nice break for the holidays before returning to action against Sam Houston State at 5:30 p.m. MST on Dec. 28.
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