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El Paso, TX — Senior Kayla Thornton posted a monstrous double-double (22 points & school-record-tying 20 rebounds) while sophomore Jenzel Nash poured in a season-best 24 points, and UTEP toppled Tulsa, 97-66, in its Conference USA home opener Saturday afternoon.
The Miners (13-2, 2-0 C-USA) were clicking on all cylinders offensively, nailing 12 triples (tied for sixth most in school history) and recording 20 assists on 36 total field goals. Overall UTEP drilled 46.8 percent (36-of-77) from the floor on the way to finishing with a campaign-best and ninth-most points in a game in program annals.
The Golden Hurricane (7-6, 0-2 C-USA) enjoyed some good moments on offense (27-of-66, 40.9 percent), with Liesl Spoerl and Kadan Brady tying for the team lead with 12 points. Ultimately, though, Tulsa had no answer for the home side’s high-octane offensive attack.
With the victory UTEP moves to 10-0 on the year at home while running its winning streak against Tulsa to 15 games.
“This was a very important game for us,” UTEP head coach Keitha Adams said. “I’m very proud of our team. This was a great win against a good team.”
Tulsa handled the Miners’ press well with only 15 turnovers, but UTEP made them count by converting them into 21 points. The Orange and Blue also enjoyed significant advantages in rebounding (53-36), points off turnovers (21-7) and fast-break points (16-3). Thornton played a big role in each of those areas, particularly on the glass.
She becomes the first Miner to go off for a 20/20 game, as former Miner great Kanequa Chancellor fell just shy of the feat with 18 points and 20 boards against SE Missouri State on Nov. 29, 1997.
Thornton, who logged just 28 minutes of action, is the third player in C-USA this season to surpass 20 points in both points and rebounds in a single game.
Kelli Willingham, who drained six threes in the win at UAB on Jan. 8, drilled five from distance to finish with 15 points while also dishing out a season-high six assists. Fellow senior Kristine Vitola dominated in the paint with a campaign-best 15 points in only 22 minutes of action.
There was a sluggish start to the contest, with Tulsa leading 4-0 with 16:48 to play in the first half. UTEP made that a distant memory by going on a 14-1 run over the next 3:34 to essentially take control of the contest.
Tulsa did its best to hang around, nailing 46.7 percent (14-of-30) from the floor in the first half, but the Orange and Blue were simply too explosive. The cushion was 13 at the break (50-37), with the Golden Hurricane using a desperation 30-foot three pointer at the buzzer to narrow the gap.
It proved to be a moot point. UTEP surged out of the gates in the second half with an 18-6 push, putting the game out of reach for good. TU continued to play hard down the stretch, but it could get no closer than 23 the rest of the way out.
The final points in the game also resulted in the largest ovation at the Don Haskins Center, with hard-working walk-on guard Marissa Rodriguez using a silky-smooth stroke to drill the three-pointer from the wing.
The Miners will return to action when they venture to the “Volunteer State” to battle Middle Tennessee at 6 p.m. MST Wednesday. The Blue Raiders were the preseason pick to win C-USA while UTEP was voted second. The game will air on 1150 AM in El Paso.
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