Sunday, February 16, 2014

Emotional tribute hits home for UTEP coach

Given the powerful emotions swirling throughout Old Dominion's annual Hoops for the Cure ceremonies, it would have been understandable if UTEP coach Keitha Adams had sequestered her team in the locker room during the event to focus on the game.

Instead, Adams and the Miners stood in front of their courtside seats Saturday at the Constant Center and soaked in every bit of it, from the triumphant Survivor Walk and the giant canvas in tribute to the remarkable Sara Jones - the cancer-stricken volunteer assistant to head coach Karen Barefoot who passed away a year ago to the day - to the poignant images on the overhead big screens.

"I had a couple of kids with tears running down their faces after that," Adams said. "We all know what cancer can do, so (staying out there) was just our way of trying to be respectful and understanding. And it was beautiful. Everyone that went by, I just said 'God bless' because, it's just such a big battle."

Keitha Adams
The fight against cancer became even more personal for Adams last summer after her father, Lowell Adams, passed away at age 79 on Aug. 13.

"My kids all know what I've been going through," Adams said. "This is my first season without my dad, so it's something that's pretty close to my family as well."

But while the Miners may have been wrestling with their emotions, the Lady Monarchs appeared to draw strength from the proceedings. From the opening tip they rebounded voraciously, continually beat the Miners to 50-50 balls and executed crisply at both ends to seize an eight-point lead at intermission.  Given the quality of the opponent, a case can be made that it was Old Dominion's finest 20-minute stretch of the season. 

The idea that the Lady Monarchs were playing for something larger than themselves wasn't lost on Adams.

"I do believe there was some lining up of the stars there," the coach said. "We've all seen athletes have amazing performances because of added motivation, and I know (Sara Jones) was a tremendous loss."

But there are reasons why the Miners may be the team to beat in Conference USA, and those were on full display over the final 20 minutes. From Kayla Thornton's ability to take over games for stretches and the explosive Jenzel Nash's talent for getting buckets in bunches to some canny defensive adjustments, the Miners had enough poise to absorb ODU's early haymakers and pull away late for a 10-point win. 

"I've got some really competitive kids in there," Adams said after the Miners bagged their seventh straight win. "They outplayed us in the first half. But when we came back out, we did what we needed to do."

With the victory, UTEP improved to 20-4 and 9-2 in Conference USA, one game behind league-leading Middle Tennessee State, tied in the loss column with Tulane and East Carolina and a game ahead of Southern Miss (8-3). Obviously the Miners would love to catch/pass the Blue Raiders, but the key is to remain among the league's top four teams. Seeds one through four receive double-byes in the Conference USA Tournament and will start out three victories away from winning the title. Seeds five through eight will need to win four games, and everyone else faces an unlikely five-games-in-five-days gauntlet. 

Meanwhile, the Lady Monarchs (11-14, 4-7) are tied for ninth place in CUSA and face a make-or-break two-game Texas road swing this week (at Rice on Wednesday, at UTSA on Saturday. Basically, ODU needs to go 5-0 or 4-1 in its last five regular-season games to give itself a realistic shot at a deep run in the conference tournament. The good news is that four of ODU's five opponents have losing overall records. The bad news is three of the five games are on the road, and the Lady Monarchs are 2-8 in true road games this season.

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