The Scarlet Knights are playing for a national championship this weekend. C. Vivian Stringer has a chance to put a stamp on a great postseason run in the WNIT. Our fellow SB Nation site for UTEP athletics, Miner Rush, was kind of enough to answer our questions:
Q: The Miners are coming off quite an emotional win against South Dakota State, as a last-second shot had a chance to send the game into overtime. What is the state of the team after such a back-and-forth game?
Miner Rush: Like Coach Adams has said all year they are on fire. This is a senior lead team that has matured to an elite level during this WNIT run, and is playing super poised where we are now getting used to them pulling those types of games off. Of course the home court advantage has parlayed into closing out those close, emotional wins, but this team is on one of those magical rides and nothing seems to faze these ladies.
Q: On paper, UTEP women's basketball had a very successful year on the hardwood, going 12-4 in conference play and 24-7 overall. What kept them out of the NCAA tournament, and did the season go as expected?
MR: The main thing that kept them out of the tournament was the C-USA Tournament Semi-Final loss to Southern Miss. Before the season we knew these ladies had NCAA tourney potential, but a late regular season loss on the road to FAU where the Owls made everything they shot from deep, then the loss to Southern Miss. Didn't help out the resume. I felt as long as they reached the C-USA Tournament Final they would have been in, this team is loaded with returners and talented new comers and I think the regular season went just as most would have thought or predicted a WNIT championship would be the icing on the Miner 2013-14 season cake.
Q: Fan support for the postseason run seems to be strong, as the Miners are posting attendance numbers well over the regular-season average. Is there a lot of buzz for the game, as well as next season?
MR: Oh there is no doubt the city, and campus is fired up for this opportunity, as evident as the championship game selling out just two hours after the South Dakota State Final Four win. Next season UTEP has another solid recruiting class along with seven players returning who have seen significant minutes this year, also grabbing one of the best players out of the Houston area in Lulu McKinney, and one of, or if not the top player in the state of New Mexico Daeshianna McCants inked in for next season. I would expect the excitement of this tournament run to carry into next season as the buzz has been building around the program all season after a 10-0 start to this campaign.
Q: Head coach Keitha Adams has been with the program since 2001. Where does her legacy stand in El Paso?
MR: When Keitha took over the program back then UTEP averaged maybe 350 fans per game, winning seasons were rare, and now it's the polar opposite. Local media and people close to program have compared her work to the likelihood of how Don Haskins built the Men's program based on the way she has built this thing from ground up, and preaches defense. She has made the postseason a normality around here, along with some talented recruiting classes she has brought it in, plus being one of the best Divison one programs in Texas since 2006, has the program on the brink of national prominence. Her legacy to me is still growing because I believe she is has a lot of national goals she wants to fulfill, but she definitely is already a local legend with her induction into the El Paso Sports Hall of Fame recently.
Q: Who are some of the key players Rutgers should watch out for, and what style of play should we be expecting?
MR: AP All-American Honorable Mention honoree, El Paso native and senior Kayla Thornton is the real deal. She should be a WNBA draft pick or free agent signee, her offense is at its best when she gets the ball around the rim, averaging 19 points and 10 boards on the season, she has the physical ability to take over games, and has done so all through her career at UTEP as she is the school's leading scorer and rebounder. Fellow senior 6'4" center Kristine Vitola has really turned it on during the tournament. The past two games she has 39 points combined, adding 23 boards to the parties as well, swatting four shots in huge moments against South Dakota State. She is super-efficient around the rim as well, and the Miner guards do a good job of finding her down low when the offense is flowing. UTEP's bench led by guards Sparkle Taylor, Jenzel Nash, and Stacie Telles has also came along very well since the latter part of the regular season, outscoring Colorado's bench rotation 22-0 in the WNIT Quarterfinal.
UTEP on offense is a true inside out team; they like to run the offense through both Vitola, and Thornton on the block, limiting post touches is always key for opponents. On defense, UTEP has a stable of athletic guards that do a great pressuring and forcing turnovers, that turns things into a up and down game which also plays into what they like to do. The Miners will show a few different looks on defense, their best defensive set is a half-court trap with Thornton on top, leading to 6 steals that turned into fast break chances against South Dakota State, and numerous second half comebacks this season against short benches that they are able to wear down the stretch of games.
Q: Prediction time. Who wins the 2014 Women's NIT Championship Game?
MR: Rutgers does a good job on the offensive boards, and that will be a key for UTEP since opponents second chance points haven't been an issue during the WNIT, but at times physical styled teams have gave UTEP trouble in that department this season. The home crowd advantage theory has been proven beyond belief during this run, and I believe that will play a factor in a close, classic heavy weight battle of a championship game. UTEP has taken its play to another level during the WNIT, and it's hard to see that end in a loss on our home floor. UTEP 74 Rutgers 70.