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Charlotte pushes league champ to brink in double OT heartbreaker

EL PASO, Texas – Charlotte gave Conference USA regular-season champion (RV/RV) UTEP all it could handle, battling for an extra 10 minutes before eventually dropping a 94-91 double-overtime nail biter inside the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas. The 49ers went to a second overtime for the first time since 2009-10 and the three-point margin tied for the closest by any Miners opponent this season.

Charlotte’s illustrious freshmen duo of Grace Hunter and Laia Raventós paved the way Saturday afternoon in the nip-and-tuck battle along the international border. Hunter made her first nine field goals before finishing 13-of-15 from the floor, including a pair of 3-pointers, and 4-of-5 free throws for a game-best and career-high 32 points. She added nine rebounds to fall just short of a double-double in 48 minutes.

Raventós, who is nominated for the State Farm Assist of the Year competition, handed out seven helpers to go along with her career-best 22 points, five rebounds and three steals while matching Hunter with 48 minutes played.

Senior Kira Gordon collected her third double-double of the season and ninth of her career with 11 points and a game-high 12 boards, helping the 49ers dominate the glass with a season-best 50 to only 36 by UTEP (25-2, 16-1 C-USA).

Junior Lefty Webster chipped in 14 points, while senior Alexis Alexander nearly posted a double-double with nine points and eight caroms in only 26 minutes.

The Miners were led by 31 points from Jenzel Nash, however she needed 14 more shots than Hunter to nearly match her in the scoring column. Lulu McKinney added 18 points, Starr Breedlove finished with 13 and Cameasha Turner contributed a dozen as UTEP also had four players in double-figure scoring.

Hunter put Charlotte (17-10, 10-6 C-USA) on her back early, knocking down shot-after-shot and netting all seven points in a 7-4 start through the 5:54 mark. A Sparkle Taylor jumper and a triple from Breedlove pulled the Miners ahead by two, 9-7, entering the media timeout with 4:05 left in the period. Two Webster free throws evened the score for the first time at 3:26 but UTEP used a layup from Nash and a Tamara Seda jumper to reclaim a four-point edge, 13-9, entering the final two minutes. The 49ers then went to Alexander on their next possession and a Hunter layup following a long pass from Raventós brought Charlotte even, 13-13, through the first 10 minutes.

Nash tallied the first seven points for the Miners, including a 3-pointer at 8:17, and UTEP staked a five-point advantage, 20-15, with 8:17 to play. Back-to-back trifectas from Webster and Hunter, followed by another Hunter jumper mounted an 8-0 Niners surge and put Charlotte back in front, 23-20, at the 6:26 mark. The two sides would trade baskets during the next 2:35 before a Webster jumper preceded a Gordon jumper, increasing the 49ers’ edge to five, 29-24, with 3:13 to go. Two Seda free throws started a 8-0 spurt for UTEP as it entered the locker room ahead by three, 32-29.

Following a Hunter layup to begin the second half’s scoring, the Miners picked up where they left off and netted the next 10 points, the last coming on a Turner layup following a Nash steal, to widen their margin to 11, 42-31, at the 8:04 mark. Alexander ended any further push with an old-fashioned three-point play, trimming the deficit back to single digits, 42-34. It would be the start of an overall 15-4 Charlotte spurt, spanning 5:03, to again knot the score, 46-46, on a Gordon basket with 3:01 left. The Niners made 5-of-8 field goals in the run to climb back into the contest, not letting the boisterous crowd rattle them. UTEP quickly flipped things back into its favor, closing the frame by scoring six of the final eight points to hold a 52-48 lead entering the final regulation period.

The Miners increased their advantage to seven, 59-52, within the first three minutes on a Breedlove 3-pointer at the 7:23 mark. Raventós then took control, driving hard to the hoop for a jumper and slowing down any momentum. Charlotte continued to find ways to get to the basket, drawing fouls and going to the foul line. Three-straight charity tosses, including a pair from Hunter, sliced the gap to four, 61-57, at 5:59. Nash’s old-fashioned three-point lead stretched it back to seven, but Raventós answered with a trey and two free throws after the media timeout to make it a one-possession game, 64-62, at the 4:41 mark. The teams again traded basket-for-basket in the next 3:03 before the Spanish sensation buried another 3-pointer, pulling the 49ers within one, 70-69, with 1:38 to play. Following a UTEP turnover, Gordon converted a layup and Raventós hit the front-end of a two-shot situation to give Charlotte a 72-70 edge with 43.8 seconds to play. As the two teams called timeouts to plot strategy, the 49ers were able to create a miscue when McKinney stepped on the baseline with only 19.5 seconds left. However, shortly after the ball was in-bounded, Charlotte gave the ball right back to the home side and Nash was fouled. She hit both free throws, tying the score once again. The 49ers called one last timeout to set up an in-bounds play but Raventós attempt at the final horn bounced off the rim, sending the game into overtime.

Both teams struggled to find points throughout the frame, each only making one field goal and two free throws. Raventós continued her solid play late with the first points on a jumper at the 4:02 mark followed by a Turner layup and two more free throws from Seda, as the Miners pulled ahead, 76-74. Entering the final stretch, Webster was able to draw a foul and she made both of her attempts for a 76-76 score at the 1:16 mark. Neither side had a good look at the basket the rest of the way, sending the game into the second extra period.

Nothing seemed to slow UTEP down in the next frame, as it buried three triples before a backcourt steal and layup from Turner led to a nine-point cushion, 87-78, with 1:24 remaining. Knowing its best ploy to crawl back into the game was to lengthen it as much as possible, Charlotte went hard to the basket and drew fouls. The strategy worked and the 49ers slowly chipped away at the deficit. Two charity tosses by Raventós brought the gap to five, 89-84, with 32.2 seconds on the clock. The Miners built their margin back to as much as seven before a corner 3-pointer from junior Ciara Gregory made it a four-point contest, 93-89, with 6.8 seconds to go. Hunter added two more free throws with 0.9 seconds left but Charlotte ran out of time to close any tighter.

The 49ers return to Halton Arena, where they own a 10-2 record this season, for the final two home games of the campaign. Charlotte opens the last week of the regular season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Rice before playing host to North Texas at 7 p.m. Saturday on Senior Night with festivities after the game honoring Alexander and Gordon.

-- Freshman Grace Hunter tallied a career-best 32 points on 13-of-15 from the floor in her best offensive performance of the season. Her 86.7 field goal percentage is the sixth best in program history with at least 11 attempts and second highest under head coach Cara Consuegra (2012-present) following Gabby Tyler’s 10-of-11 during the last trip to UTEP Jan. 18, 2014.
-- Hunter’s 32 points are the most by a Charlotte player this year and second 30-plus scoring contest this season, topping the 30-point effort by senior Alexis Alexander Nov. 15, 2015, against Robert Morris.
-- Hunter’s 32 points tie her for the most by a 49ers player during the Consuegra tenure, as she joined Ephiphany Woodson at Saint Louis Feb. 22, 2012, and Hillary Sigmon at UTEP Jan. 18, 2014, for the mark.
-- Her 32 points are also the most by any freshman in Conference USA this season.
-- Freshman Laia Raventós tallied a career-best 22 points, topping her previous high of 19 at North Texas Feb. 13. She becomes the sixth different Charlotte player to reach the 20-point plateau this year.
-- Senior Kira Gordon recorded her third season double-double and ninth of her career with 11 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, including 10 on the defensive glass.
-- The 49ers’ 91 points marks the fourth-highest single-game scoring total under Consuegra with three of the four coming this season. The lone exception of the quartet is 92 points during the program’s only other trip to UTEP, Jan. 18, 2014.
-- It marks the 51st time in school history and third this season Charlotte has registered at least 90 points in game and just the 11th in the last 15 years.
-- The Niners played in their first overtime game since going an extra period against Tulane Jan. 22, 2014, inside Halton Arena.
-- Charlotte’s last double-overtime contest was at Duquesne Jan. 9, 2010, in the Atlantic 10 opener.
-- The 49ers reached overtime for the fourth time under head coach Cara Consuegra.
-- Although Charlotte shot better than 50.0 percent from the floor (51.6 percent/33-of-64), it is only the second loss in 27 tries during Consuegra’s career in which it made more than half of its field goal attempts. The performance came against a UTEP team which was ranked second in the conference, only allowing 37.5 percent shooting by its opponents entering the contest. The previous five Miners opponents were only averaging 56.4 points per game and 36.4 percent shooting before Saturday’s action.
-- The 49ers closed February with a 5-2 mark for the second-straight year, tying for the second-best record in the month under Consuegra. Only the 2012-13 squad posted a better mark at 8-0 in its final year playing in the Atlantic 10.
-- Charlotte’s 50 rebounds are a season high, one better than the 49 it grabbed against Southern Miss Jan. 7 on Education Day. It’s the highest for the Niners since they collected 50 against Marshall March 1, 2014.
-- Several players played career-best minutes, including freshman Laia Raventós (48), junior Lefty Webster (48), freshman Grace Hunter (48), senior Kira Gordon (44) and redshirt freshman Mintrell McKoy (16).