WNIT run ends in Final Four thriller

 They say that all good things must come to end and for women’s basketball, the end to their WNIT run came in El Paso at the hands of the University of Texas El Paso Miners who defeated the Jackrabbits 63-60 in front of 12,222 fans.

SDSU’s road game on April 3 marked the end of a stretch of four straight home victories in the WNIT to reach the tournament’s Final Four, the deepest they have ever advanced into a tournament at the Division I level.

“I thought we played really well down here in a tough environment, just did a lot of things that, I know I as a coach, I think fans and everyone else will think of in a good way for many years to come,” said head coach Aaron Johnston.

From the start, the Jackrabbits showed that they were in Texas to play, not to be awed by a crowd that was more than three times the size of SDSU’s largest home crowd of the year. 

Gabby Boever’s three gave SDSU the first points of the game. After being deadlocked at 12, the Jackrabbits led the rest of the half, leading by as many as nine before UTEP closed the gap and went into the break, down 30-26, following a 5-0 Miner run to close out the half.

UTEP continue their run into the second half, scoring the first eight points to take a four-point lead before the Jackrabbits could get their offense in gear. When they did, they countered with five of their own, including a three from Tara Heiser to put the Jacks back on top.

“For the start of the second half we were just a little bit tight,” Johnston said. “Their crowd got in it. They hit a couple of shots. We weathered that storm, came back made a lot of plays to actually get leads back, just did a lot of things we needed to.” 

For the bulk of the half, the two teams grappled back and forth, fighting to be on top with a one or two point lead. With 4:35 left, UTEP took the lead for good, leading by as many as six down the stretch.

Even so, the Jackrabbits did not quietly accept defeat, sinking a pair of threes in the final thirty seconds and after a missed UTEP foul shot, having two opportunities to tie the game with a three-pointer, only to watch the ball bounce away.

Johnston mentioned prior to the game that his team had to keep the Miners off the charity stripe, and their inability to do so proved the difference in the game as UTEP went 23-30 on free throws, compared to only nine makes in 13 attempts for SDSU.

“It’s almost impossible to beat a team when there’s that much of a margin,” Johnston said. “They’re just really good at getting to the basket, really aggressive doing that. If you can kind of balance that area out of it, it’s a bit of a different game.”

The Jackrabbits did outperform the Miners from deep though, going 10-26 on three-pointers compared to just 5-25 for UTEP.

Megan Waytashek was the only Jackrabbit to reach double figures, but three Miners reached that platform, led by Honorable Mention All-American Kayla Thornton who scored 22 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and six steals. UTEP also picked up a big game from their center Kristine Vitola who scored 19, pulled down nine rebounds and blocked four shots.

UTEP went on to host Rutgers in the WNIT Finals where the Scarlet Knights defeated them 56-54 to take the WNIT crown.

The Jackrabbits finished with a 26-6 season. Also at an end are the careers of Hannah Strop, Steph Paluch and Tara Heiser. 

“I’m really proud of Steph, Tara and Hannah,” Johnston said. “… Steph, Tara and Hannah were just great for us. Love them to death and I’m going to be sorry to see them move on.”

Paluch was named to the all-tournament team for her performances, reaching double figures in four of her five games and averaging 15.2 points per game during the tournament.