Preseason MVP: Katia Gallegos -- The hometown point guard carries herself like she’s the best player on the court and has assumed a leadership role going into her second year. She proved she can score, facilitate and defend at an all-conference level.
The Ceiling: Best case scenario, the Miners go toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best—Old Dominion and Rice— and steal a win or two against the conference powerhouses. If they can compete in the regular season against the league’s juggernauts and finish inside the top three of C-USA, they can be a threat for the conference title.
The Floor: Worst case scenario, the Miners struggle in Conference-USA play, especially on the road, and because only eight teams making the conference tournament, UTEP misses the cut and the team is left to regroup and re-up for next season with only a handful of players leaving.
Game of the Year: at Old Dominion, January 28
Projected Starting Five:
PG | 5-7 | So. | El Paso, Texas
G | 6-0 | So. | Sachse, Texas
G | 5-7 | Jr. | Arlington, Texas
F | 5-11 | Sr. | Chicago, Ill.
F | 6-1 | Jr. | Houston, Texas
Impact-First Year Player: Destiny Thurman
The UTEP enters the upcoming season with a bit of a sour taste in its mouths from last season’s abrupt finish. It’s still a sore subject among the group.
Entering his fourth season at the helm, head coach Kevin Baker really appreciated how far along his young team came along last year (16-14, 8-10 C-USA) and wants to keep the momentum high inside the program. The COVID-19 pandemic sent the team packing from the conference tournament in Frisco before they could play Old Dominion in the quarterfinals.
“I think in 27 years of coaching, one of the hardest things I ever had to do was tell a group of ladies that our season was over and that even though we were playing really well, we had to stop and go home,” Baker said. “That was very difficult to do, especially because I thought our young team had really grown up and our young team was hitting on all cylinders.”
Much of the rising success of this team was attributed to the core four freshman that played extensive minutes with the Miners. Leading the way among the rising young players is sophomore point guard Katia Gallegos, who finished last year with All-Conference Freshman honors. The El Paso native averaged 9.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.7 steals per contest while starting every game as a true freshman last year for UTEP. Sophomore guard Avery Crouse averaged 8.0 ppg in the backcourt alongside Gallegos. Fellow sophomores Arina Khlopkova (guard) and Tatyana Modawar (forward) also played significant minutes for the team.
In total, the Miners return nine players from last year’s team, including forward Michelle Pruitt (5.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg), forward Ariana Taylor (6.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg), guard Sabine Lipe (4.7 ppg, 16.8 minutes per game) and guard Tia Bradshaw.
Baker added some athleticiscm and size to the 2020 recruiting class for the Miners too. One of the bright spots among the incoming Miners is guard Destiny Thurman, a two-time National Junior College All-American who averaged 17 ppg last year for Collin County Community College. They added size in Dagne Apsite (6-foot-2), Elina Arike (6-foot-0) and Brenda Fontana (6-foot-1). All three of the forwards have previous playing experience in International basketball clubs. Clemson transfer Isis Lopes likely won’t be eligible to play this year for the Miners, though Baker is especially high on the Australian guard.
Year four for the Miners will be important because as the up-and-coming Miners trend higher in the league, the target on their back becomes that much bigger. If Baker is able to replicate balanced scoring from last year across his roster and develop some of these offseason additions, this team has a chance to take another important step in building this program to a conference championship contender.