UTEP forward Kayla Thornton (5) celebrates the Miners' 80-78 WNIT semifinal victory over South Dakota State on Wednesday, April 2, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Tex. With the win, UTEP advances to face Rutgers on Saturday for the WNIT championship. (Photo by Pierre Aguirre/Courtesy UTEP Athletics Media Relations)
UTEP forward Kayla Thornton (5) celebrates the Miners' 80-78 WNIT semifinal victory over South Dakota State on Wednesday, April 2, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Tex. With the win, UTEP advances to face Rutgers on Saturday for the WNIT championship. (Photo by Pierre Aguirre/Courtesy UTEP Athletics Media Relations)

UTEP to face Rutgers for 2014 WNIT Championship

April 3, 2014 - 2:30pm

If you’re upset about being snubbed on Selection Monday, there’s only one way to respond: Go the distance in the WNIT and show the NCAA Selection Committee that you belonged.

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights managed to do just that on Wednesday night. They won a road game against conference foe and fellow bubble team South Florida to advance to the WNIT championship game on Saturday afternoon. Rutgers will face UTEP, a team from a downmarket league (Conference USA) that has made the most of its talent, as well the home-court advantage it has received in this tournament. In front of a sold-out crowd in Don Haskins Center (Saturday's championship game is also already sold out), the Miners outlasted the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in Wednesday’s more entertaining semifinal to advance.

Rutgers-UTEP will be a matchup of teams from opposite sides of the tracks in women’s college basketball. The Scarlet Knights have competed in multiple Final Fours (most recently in 2007) under legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer. UTEP has one only one NCAA tournament game in its history. But don't rule out the kids from West Texas, who have been showing both talent and resilience en route to their appearance in this year's WNIT title game.

Coming Up -- WNIT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME - Saturday, April 5
Rutgers (27-9) @ UTEP (29-7) -- 3:05 p.m. EDT (2:05 p.m. CDT)
Don Haskins Center, El Paso, Tex.

Semifinal Results - Wednesday, April 2

Rutgers 62, South Florida 52

The American Athletic Conference can claim two points of distinction at the tail-end of the 2013-2014 college basketball season: First, Connecticut is a Final Four team in both the women’s and the men’s NCAA Tournaments. Second, an AAC bubble team, snubbed in the NCAA selection process, will compete for both the NIT and the WNIT titles.

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the South Florida Bulls were both left just outside the candy store on Selection Monday. Two evenly-matched competitors from the newly-formed American Athletic Conference shared a miserable Monday on March 17. However, they both managed to shake off a case of the busted-bubble blues and win four WNIT games. With the SMU men’s team in the NIT final, the American was assured, even before Wednesday's semifinal tipped off, of getting a second conference representative in the women's championship game of “The Other Tournament.”

Rutgers and South Florida had to like the fact that they were able to meet at this late stage of the 2014 WNIT. Neither coaching staff had to formulate an entirely new scouting report. The players on both sides were able to let loose and play with considerable energy against a familiar foe. With the season at its natural endpoint (win or lose), this contest meant something in the present tense, and yet it also possessed a measure of meaning in the future tense. Such a meeting in a postseason tournament enlivens the competitive atmosphere and offers players (especially the underclassmen) an extra incentive to succeed as they look ahead to the 2014-15 season.

At the end of this duel in the USF Sun Dome, Rutgers walked away with an added measure of validation following its Selection Monday disappointment.
In what was a nip-and-tuck game from most of the way, neither team led by more than seven points the whole game until Rutgers pulled away in the final two minutes to win by a deceptively large 10-point margin.

Having trailed by a 53-46 score with 3:43 remaining in regulation, South Florida scored five quick points to apply pressure to Rutgers. As the clock moved toward the two-minute mark, Rutgers clung to a tenuous, 53-51 lead. Someone needed to make a play for the visitors from New Jersey, and Tyler Scaife took center stage.

Scaife -- who sparkled off the bench for Rutgers, popping in 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting -- hit this game’s biggest shot. She stopped USF’s last, best run and quieted the Tampa crowd with a jumper at the 2:16 mark to give RU a four-point lead, 55-51. Rutgers scored on its next two possessions to forge a 59-52 advantage with 1:01 left, but the bigger story of the final 2:16 is that USF scored only one point in that span of time. Rutgers proved to be the superior defensive team, and that superiority emerged in those final minutes when the outcome of the Knights-Bulls clash hung in the balance.

Rutgers didn’t make a single three-point shot, and it hit just 6-of-12 free throws, but the Scarlet Knights won because they limited South Florida to 31-percent field-goal shooting. USF’s Inga Orekhova was bothered by Rutgers all night long. The volume shooter attempted 11 threes but converted only two, finishing 3-of-18 from the field.

Rutgers was also able to defend without fouling. USF made only nine trips to the foul line, which prevented the Bulls from taking advantage of RU’s poor night at the charity stripe.

UTEP 66, South Dakota State 63

For some programs, a five-game postseason winning streak and a WNIT championship game appearance are not seen as representing a significant accomplishment. For the UTEP Miners, who have made only two NCAA tournaments and have won only one game in the Big Dance, it’s a very big deal.

Wednesday night, the Miners earned the right to say that they’ve gone the distance in this six-game tournament, grinding out a 66-63 victory over South Dakota State to win the fifth stage of the WNIT and give itself a shot at a championship on Saturday afternoon.

Not all college basketball games are strongly influenced by the progression of the first half, but this one was. The game's final few minutes proved to be suspenseful and entertaining, but UTEP might not have found its way to the finish line had South Dakota State been able to do more before halftime.

The first seven-and-a-half minutes of this game were crisply and cleanly played. Both teams found an immediate rhythm and produced a free-flowing gem until the 12:33 mark. At that point, SDSU led by a 20-17 count.

Then, using 12:33 in the first half as the point of reference, this game grew ugly for both sides, with neither team being able to get out of its own way on offense.
UTEP did not score a point in the next 3:41, and the Miners totaled only five points in a nine-minute stretch on their home floor.

By the time the clock showed 3:33 remaining in the first half, UTEP owned only 22 points. South Dakota State could not have asked for a better first half at the defensive end of the floor. Surely, the Jackrabbits -- being true to their nickname -- were able to run away, right?


SDSU managed only 10 points in that same lengthy nine-minute span. What could have been a 40-22 lead with steady and consistent offensive play instead became a modest 30-22 advantage when UTEP, at least, emerged from its semi-somnulent state with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the opening frame. While South Dakota State continued to slumber, UTEP managed at least to put four more points on the scoreboard (a Jenzel Nash jumper and a pair from the charity stripe by Kayla Thornton) before the horn sounded the intermission, sending the Jackrabbits to the locker rooom with a fragile 30-26 edge.

Despite its halftime lead, however, SDSU had, in many ways, already ceded leverage to its hosts in El Paso by its inability to take advantage of the UTEP scoring lull.

In the second half, UTEP took full advantage of the reprieve it had been given. The Miners scored the first eight points after the intermission against an SDSU side that was clearly shaken and rattled by the conclusion to the first half. The Jackrabbits, to their great credit, snapped out of their funk and engaged the Miners in a compelling second-half stalemate. Both teams traded leads and tying baskets for several minutes in which fluid offensive play returned to the Don Haskins Center. With five minutes left in a contest that had regained the verve and color it owned in the first 7:27 of the competition, South Dakota State clung to a 52-51 lead.

Then, for the second time on Wednesday night, a stretch of beautiful offense was followed by a segment in which the defenses took over. The key difference, though, is that unlike the first half, it was South Dakota State -- not UTEP -- that encountered the more severe scoring drought.

In the home stretch, SDSU posted only only one field goal in a span of 4:59 (5:16 to 0:17). The Jackrabbits could not string together quality possessions, and UTEP -- though not exactly prolific during this period of time (the Miners hit only two field-goal attempts during this span) -- was able to go to town at the foul line. The Miners hit 11 foul shots in the final five minutes, getting five of those makes from Kristine Vitola, who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, and four blocked shots for UTEP.

The Miners owned a 63-57 lead with 20 seconds left, and it appeared that the game was over. Yet, in a game that never decided exactly what it wanted to become -- other than unpredictable, of course -- Jackrabbits-Miners found yet one more plot twist. South Dakota State hit back-to-back threes in a span of eight seconds to pull within two, at 65-63, with nine seconds to go.

UTEP -- which did its part at the foul line as this game careened toward its conclusion -- left the door open with eight seconds left when Kelli Willingham was only able to split a pair of free throws. SDSU wound up with two looks at a tying triple in the final, frantic finish, but the last attempt -- by Marian Clarin -- missed the mark at the final horn.

 Kayla Thornton starred for UTEP, pouring in 22 points while collecting 11 boards and six steals. UTEP hit only 33 percent of its shots but outscored SDSU by 14 at the foul line, 23-9.

Megan Waytashek scored 14 for South Dakota State, but needed 13 attempts to score those points, though as a team, the Jackrabbits shot much better than the Miners, both from the field (40 percent, to UTEP's 33.3 percent) and from beyond the arc (10 three-balls, shot at a 38.5-percent clip, to UTEP's five treys on 20-percent 3-point field-goal shooting).