The UTEP women's basketball team needed one more piece before it could claim to be a Conference USA contender.
The Miners needed to topple a league powerhouse. They needed to beat Middle Tennessee.
They just did.
UTEP defended four shots in a final 1:02 where the Blue Raiders had almost continuous possession of the ball, coming away with a 56-55 victory against the defending C-USA champions that atoned for Thursday's overtime loss to UAB.
Quoting the coach
"They've been really tough to beat," coach Kevin Baker said of Middle Tennessee, which was 9-1 all-time against UTEP before Saturday's game, including a blowout in the semifinals of last year's Conference USA tournament that ended the Miners' season. "In fact, we haven't been that close, we really haven't.
"To watch us climb back into it a little bit and become a player in the Conference USA race, that's the thing I'm most proud of. When you're trying to build a program, what you're trying to do is play meaningful games every time you step onto the floor.
"The only way you can do that is if you're in the hunt. I'm proud of our team to be able to play these relevant games."
Miners hold in endgame
While UTEP split a pair of coin-flip games that went to the wire, the Miners won the one where they played better defense. That showed all game and it showed in the final 1:02 when Middle Tennessee had the ball for all but one second.
After the Blue Raiders missed a pair of 3-pointers, UTEP's Avery Crouse rebounded with 35 seconds left but it was quickly stolen back by Alexis Whittington. After a timeout, with a four second differential between the game and shot clocks, UTEP's Elina Arike defended Kseniya Malashka's layup attempt with 5 seconds remaining.
Middle Tennessee secured the rebound and kicked it out to Dor Saar for a contested 3 at the buzzer that badly missed.
All of that dropped Middle Tennessee to 33 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range. This came a game after UAB shot 60 percent against the Miners.
Defense the difference
"I think we just learned from the UAB game," said Teal Battle, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. "We weren't fully ourselves in that game, our defense wasn't up to par. We bounced back, learned what we needed to change and put it on the court."
UTEP held MTSU to 16 points in the paint and much of that was the defense of Arike, who also added 13 points and eight rebounds.
"All around we played good defense," Arike said. "They are a shooting team, they shot a lot of 3s, but we played team defense and that's what it was about. We did it for the whole game.
"It's always a big deal to beat Middle Tennessee. I played them once and last year we got our (butt's) kicked and now we bounced back and I'm so happy."
The reactions showed this was no routine win, as UTEP celebrated on the court for five minutes after the game and later could be heard screaming in the locker room.
"What do coaches look for, we look for the bounce-backs don't we," Baker said, adding that the key was UTEP's frontcourt staying out of the foul trouble that plagued them against UAB. "We had a tough game Thursday we probably should have won but we let it get away from us. To watch this team's character rise, to watch what we all thought could happen did happen, it was truly, truly a testament to the young ladies we have in this locker room."
How it happened
UTEP led for almost the entire second half, taking an 11-point lead late in the third quarter and a nine-point lead, 51-42, with 6:19 to play. Middle Tennessee charged in front with a 10-point run and neither team led by more than one in the tense final 3:42.
Trailing 55-54, Battle took a pass from Arike and drew a foul on a layup attempt with 1:02 remaining. To that point she was three-of-six from the line, making one-of-two on her first three trips, but she drilled both for what proved the final points.
"I've got to make them," Battle said. "I had to let the last three go and focus on the two up next."
UTEP showed balance in the game, getting eight points, seven rebounds and four assists from Katia Gallegos, nine points from Crouse and seven points from Destiny Thurman. Starters accounted for 50 of UTEP's 56 points.
That all added up to a big win against an elite C-USA team, something that had eluded the Miners until Saturday.
The UTEP women start their C-USA road slate with at game at Louisiana Tech on Thursday night. Tip is set for 5:30 p.m.
Middle hosts Rice Thursday.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: UTEP women's basketball holds on to beat Middle Tennessee