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Top-seeded UTEP ends Rice's hot streak in C-USA quarterfinals

By Justin Hudson     3/13/08 7:00pm

Going into the Conference USA quarterfinal with No. 24 University of Texas-El Paso, the women's basketball team had done everything right. The Owls (14-18, 6-10 C-USA) were peaking when they needed to, having won four in a row. They had handily defeated East Carolina University 69-55 in the opening round of the tournament, holding their opponent to its lowest output since December. And as the contest against the Miners (27-3, 16-0 C-USA) entered the final stretch of the second half, the Owls had not buckled - unlike in the squads' previous meetings - and looked poised to make a run at a fifth-straight conference final.But just when they needed it most, the Owls' luck ran out in the second half when UTEP guard Jareica Hughes, the eventual C-USA Tournament MVP, turned in a performance for the ages: Hughes put in 29 of a career-high 33 points in the second half to lead the Miners to a 80-71 victory that brought Rice's season to an end.

Not only did the loss end Owls' run, it also marked the end of an era for the Rice women's basketball team. For the first time since the 1995-'96 season, the Owls finished with a losing record, and they will miss the postseason for the first time in five seasons. Head coach Greg Williams (Hanszen '70) will also lose one of the most distinguished classes in team history. Senior point guard Kadie Riverin and senior center Valeriya Berezhynska were both 1,000 point scorers, and along with senior forward Tiffany Loggins, they made trips to the NCAA tournament in 2005 and back-to-back trips to the WNIT in 2006 and 2007. Krystal Frazier (Will Rice '07) and Lauren Neaves (Lovett '07), members of last year's senior class, were also members of the 1,000-point club.

"Along with the class right before them, [the seniors] represent the golden era of Rice women's basketball," Williams said. "We've lost four 1,000-point scorers in the past two years. Any program in America is going to take a hit when that happens."

Fortunately for the Owls, Riverin and Berezhynska were on board for the C-USA Tournament, which began with a very familiar opponent. Five days earlier, Rice had defeated the Pirates (13-17, 7-9 C-USA) 69-62 on the strength of Berezhynksa's 23 point, 19 rebound and five steal performance. Unlike the first game, which saw the Owls overcome a ten-point second-half deficit, Rice led the second game wire-to-wire. The team made seven of its first nine shots from the field to open up a 19-4 lead. The Pirates climbed back into the game, however, cutting the lead to five before a Riverin basket gave Rice a 33-26 halftime advantage.

Any chance of an Owl letdown in the second half was quickly quelled, as Rice went on a 18-4 run to put the game out of reach. Riverin dominated the second half, scoring 16 of her game-high 20 points down the stretch despite playing with a stomach aliment. Berezhynksa was hindered by foul trouble throughout the game and only played 17 minutes, but she still scored 12 points on 4-5 shooting from the field and was a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line.

Moving into the quarterfinals, Rice faced their toughest opponent of the year. The Miners had won a nation-best 21 straight games coming into the quarterfinal and had beaten Rice during both of the team's regular season meetings. And while Rice had gone into halftime of both previous games with slight leads, second half runs of 29-0 and 24-4 ended any hopes for Owl upsets.

In the quarterfinal, the Owls once again took control in the first half. Berezhynksa and Riverin combined for 24 points to help Rice take a 34-28 halftime lead. But just as in the past contests, the Miners bounced back in considerable fashion following halftime. With Rice leading 37-31 with 17:50 left, Hughes took over, scoring 15 of the next 17 Miner points. Hughes, the C-USA Player of the Year, shot a remarkable 10 of 15 from the field and went a perfect 9-9 from the charity stripe in the second half.

Its star's outburst sparked a 30-10 UTEP run that gave the Miners a 61-47 lead with 7:18 left. The Owls gamely fought back, and a three-pointer from freshman forward Morgan Mayse with 3:41 remaining cut the Miners' lead to six. However, Hughes' performance was simply too much for the Owls to overcome. Despite 23 points from Riverin, 16 points and 8 rebounds from Berezhynksa and 15 points from Fulton, Rice's season ended on yet another second half UTEP comeback.

"We felt going into the tournament that we were as good as anybody there and if we played well we could win," Williams said. "I thought our kids were confident. I thought we believed we could win. We certainly proved that in the first 20 minutes [against UTEP].

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