UTEP battled back from 18 points down only to have Tyler Scaife convert a coast-to-coast lay-up with two seconds left to lift visiting Rutgers to a 56-54 win in the WNIT Championship contest at a sold-out Don Haskins Center Saturday afternoon.
The Scarlet Knights (28-9) led 34-16 with 18:41 to play in the game but the Miners (29-8) were not done. Spurred on by the second straight capacity crowd, UTEP began to work away at the deficit. It blitzed the visitors with a 34-14 run to pull ahead at 50-48 with 5:05 left.
Rutgers, though, responded with six straight points to go back up by four with a minute to play. After a missed free throw by Rachel Hollivay, Kristine Vitola, who led UTEP with 16 points, was fouled while securing the rebound. She calmly sank both to trim the deficit to a pair. Scaif then misfired on the front end of a one-in-one with 15 seconds to play and UTEP raced up the court.
Jenzel Nash’s lay-up try rimmed out but Chrishauna Parker, who finished with seven points and 11 rebounds, cleaned it up with a put-back to forge the game’s fourth and final tie.
Rutgers struggled to get the ball in-bounds before finding Scaife who sliced through the defense and kissed the lay-up off the glass with two seconds to play. UTEP’s long pass into space was intercepted, and Rutgers escaped El Paso with the 2014 WNIT title.
Scaife and Kahleah Copper each tallied 18 points to lead Rutgers.
The Miners finished at 25.9 percent (14-of-54) from the floor-compared to 24-of-59 (40.7 percent) by Rutgers but gave themselves a chance by controlling the glass (47-36) and nailing 22-of-30 free-throw tosses. Nash joined Vitola in double figures with 11 points while senior Kayla Thornton pitched in eight points and nine rebounds.
UTEP concludes the record-setting 2013-14 campaign at 29-8. The Miners equaled the school and league record for wins (29) while setting program standards for assists (542), double-digit wins (21), field-goals (955) and attempts (2353), free throws (697) and attempts (964), games (37), home games (25), home wins (22), offensive rebounds (577), points (2825), points per game (76.4), rebounds (1606), steals (355), three pointers (218) and attempts (697).
The setback also concludes the careers of UTEP’s three seniors. Thornton and Willingham aided the Orange and Blue to a 96-36 record over their four years (2010-14) while Kristine Vitola’s efforts resulted in 93-42 mark during her time in the Sun City.
Thornton, a 2014 Honorable-Mention Associated Press All-America, departs as the program career record holder for double-doubles (40), field goals (600) & attempts (1,387), free throws (390) & attempts (530), points (1,679) & rebounds (1032). She was a three-time All C-USA pick while also earning back-to-back All-Defensive Team selections.
Vitola, who already completed her undergraduate degree, departs having the career record for games played (134) while also becoming the third Miner in program history to boast 900+ points (941), 600+ boards (617) and 100+ blocks (190)
Willingham wraps up her run in the Sun City holding school standards for starts (117) and three-pointers made (215). She also joined former Miner great Jareica Hughes as the long players in the 40-year history of the program to boast 1,000+ points (1,073) and 300+ assists (373)
The Miners enjoyed a magical run in the tournament, which would not have been possible without the support of the UTEP administration and the city of El Paso. The Orange and Blue played all six contests in the Sun City, drawing a total of 52,108 fans. Buoying that number were capacity crowds in both the semifinal and final. UTEP also attracted then school record crowds against Colorado (8,234) and Washington (10,227)
In the first five rounds on the even the fan base seemingly willed the home side to victory, and another magical victory appeared to be in the cards. Scaife had other intentions but her heroic efforts can’t take away the memories of the past three weeks.