Year three of the Kevin Baker era comes after an eventful offseason for the Miners. The team lost all three of its assistant coaches over the summer, including Michael Madrid who became the new head coach at Texas A&M Kingsville.
UTEP also lost its leading scorer in Zuzanna Puc (12.0 points per game), as the 6-foot-2 forward is headed to Utah for her final season of eligibility. That’s now back-to-back years that the Miners have lost their leading scorer, with guard Najala Howell having fled the last offseason to New Mexico.
“What you do when you lose a player like [Puc] is replace her by committee,” Baker said during the offseason. “You find players—not just one—that can do the things she can do. She will be missed but I’m so excited for who we have now.”
Nonetheless, Baker rolled with the challenges during the offseason by hiring a new trio of assistants and by capitalizing in the JUCO transfer recruiting ranks. The team now has a notable mix of returning players and newcomers.
Year one of Baker’s tenure was a lot smoother than last year’s uphill battle. The team went 17-14 (7-9 C-USA) during the first year in 2017-18 but finished 9-22 (5-11 C-USA) during 2018-19 because of an unreal amount of injuries to the team. At times, the Miners had to deal with a slim rotation of six or seven players last year. UTEP still made the conference tournament last year and was able to surprise Marshall in the opening game (64-56).
This year’s squad will rely on their frontcourt production to lead the charge and will call on their backcourt to find success with them. Senior forwards Ariona Gill and Katarina Zec will be imperative to the Miners this season. Gill is coming off her junior campaign that was riddled with injuries but during her 11 starts for UTEP last year, she averaged 11 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Zec was second on the team in scoring last year, averaging 10.1 points, 30 minutes per game and shot 35.8 percent from 3-point range (10th in C-USA).
JUCO junior transfers Dejanae Roebuck, Michelle Pruitt and Tia Bradshaw will each have their chances to play for the Miners this year. After signing day, Baker especially highlighted Roebuck, who finished her time at Hutchison Community College with 998 points and 582 rebounds through two seasons.
Returning in the backcourt for UTEP will be senior Neidy Ocuane, junior Jordan Jenkins and sophomore Sabrine Lipe. Last year, Ocuane started 17 games for the Miners, averaging four points, two rebounds and nearly two assists per game. Jenkins and Lipe battled injuries also last year and look toward a year that they can make more of an impact on the court for UTEP. Look for hometown freshman guard Katia Gallegos to chip in off the bench. In high school, she was All-State in Texas as an all-around point guard—21 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.1 steals per game at the high school level.
UTEP will host nine of its 11 non-conference games, including games against New Mexico State, Arizona and New Mexico at the Don Haskins Center. Aside to a 40-mile drive to Las Cruces, their only road trip comes against SMU in non-conference action.
They tip-off their season against UC Riverside on Nov. 9 at home.
Ariona Gill. Injuries plagued a highly anticipated UTEP debut for Ariona Gill in 2018, but when she was active, she contributed in big ways for the MIners. Because of her size and athleticism, Gill could be the best two-way player that UTEP has this year and could be their go-to forward on offense.
Game of the Year: Arizona
When the Miners host Pac-12 affiliates Arizona, it will be interesting to see how this raw UTEP squad will fair against a power-5 opponent. The Miners will probably fall victim in this one, but the home element makes it interesting and if they can keep it close, that could bode well for league play.
Impact-First Year Player: