Senior, sophomore duos lead Miners to new heights

2/14/2008 - UTEP Miners

It's arguable whether any program has come as far this season as the University of Texas El Paso, which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time in 34 years of women's basketball.

It's easier to make the case that no NCAA Tournament hopeful came as far just to get to this season than the Miners, who count three players from Poland, one from Bolivia, one from Belarus and one from Mozambique among their number. But despite the clash of cultures converging on a border town easily lost amidst the open spaces that define West Texas, the Miners continue to produce a balanced brand of basketball suggestive of uncommon familiarity.

The five players who have started together in almost every game this season average 57.5 total points per game. By itself that's not a remarkable number, at least until you consider that no single member of the group averages more than 12.4 points or fewer than 9.6. No other team in the top 25 comes as close to that sort of perfect balance across a quintet.

The result is a team that has won 15 games in a row and has a commanding lead in the Conference USA race.

"We've had great team chemistry," coach Keitha Adams said. "We've been really unselfish on the basketball court. I've been really proud of them; they've been really unselfish and made the extra pass."

And if it seems like the Miners play together far beyond what the limits of their overlapping stays in El Paso might suggest, it's probably because that's exactly the case.

Adams' starting lineup contains two players from Poland, two from the outskirts of Detroit and one who took three years to find her way home to El Paso, but it also boasts the quirky distinction of including two pairs of high school teammates.

On the surface, seniors Izabela Piekarska and Kasia Krezel, who prepped together in Poland, might not have much in common with sophomores Jareica Hughes and Timika Williams, who won a state championship together at Southfield-Lathrup High School in Michigan. But adding two plus two is easier than one plus one plus one plus one.

"I think when you have players that have been teammates, that have played with one another beforehand, obviously they know one another's games really well," Adams said. "So that helps you on the court. And obviously, I think all of them are a long way from home and when they came here, they probably helped each other out in terms of making the transition to being as far away from home as they are. So I think it helped them off the court, and I think it helped us on the court because they know each other's games so well."

Piekarska and Krezel were the first to arrive. When Adams took a hefty pay cut to give up a high school teaching and coaching job for a chance to be an assistant at Independence Community College more than a decade ago, she found herself a part of a program with an established pipeline of international talent. One of those players turned out to be Ewa Laskowska, who came from Poland to play at Independence after Adams ascended to the head job. So it was only natural to continue making use of those connections once Adams took over at UTEP with Laskowska as one of her assistants.

And while El Paso might not be Warsaw on the Rio Grande, it still offered some surprising reminders of home for the steady flow of unusually tall, pale visitors.

"It was really different than Poland, because of the weather and the desert, but I really like it," Piekarska said. "El Paso is a safe city and I really like the people. I like that there are a lot of Mexican-Americans here because, for me, they are kind of similar to Polish people because of their religion (both Poland and Mexico are predominantly Catholic) and family life."

Piekarska and Krezel roomed together from the outset and the friendship they brought with them from Poland strengthened in Texas. Their shared experience, not to mention shared language, helped keep Piekarska sane despite a conditioning regimen she said almost drove her back across the Atlantic early on. But even with the two of them contributing significantly in each of their first two seasons -- they were the team's two leading scorers as sophomores -- the Miners struggled to get beyond breakeven. A 14-15 record in 2005-06 was still a far cry from the 3-25 record in Adams' first season, but the missing pieces of the puzzle arrived last season in the form of Williams and Hughes.

Although they didn't pitch themselves as a package deal -- Adams and her staff took their first note of Williams' AAU play before ever seeing the more-decorated Hughes -- there was a long-standing interest on their part in playing together in college.

"Coming to UTEP, it was a big part of it, for us to come and play," Hughes explained. "Throughout our whole years playing with each other, since we were 11, there's probably not a game we've missed playing with each other. So I know her game, she knows my game. She's like a best friend to me. She's really like my blood -- she's my big sister, that's the way I look at it. So it was a real blessing coming to school with her and knowing her for so long."

Both started the majority of UTEP's games last season, as Hughes paced a balanced offense and Williams led the team in rebounding (Piekarska finished second in both categories, while Krezel was second in 3-pointers and third in assists). The Miners went 22-8, the best record in school history, but missed out on the postseason.

"Both of them brought a lot of power for our team," Piekarska said of Hughes and Williams. "[Jareica] is one of the most terrific point guards I've every played with in my life, and Timika is just a hard worker. Both of them bring a lot of positive energy, and as players, I would say experience. Even though they're sophomores now, they played a lot together and they won some championships and they just know how to feel and play basketball."

With the addition of senior Natasha Lacy, who practiced with the team last season while sitting out following her transfer from TCU, the stage was set for this season. UTEP ranks among national leaders in field goal defense and assist-to-turnover ratio. Already a strong candidate for an at-large bid if they don't claim Conference USA's automatic bid, the Miners might have some postseason staying power if they can improve their free-throw shooting and fare a little better on the boards. No matter what, they've already taken the program to new heights with an appearance in the Top 25.

"You start out with a program and you're 3-25 in the first year, and you know, we weren't very good when this whole thing got started for me," Adams said. "And just to see the strides we've made and the improvements we've made along the way, definitely you feel good about that and it's a positive thing. That's been the goal -- just getting better every year and make history and do things that haven't been done."

And if you're looking to build a team, teammates aren't a bad place to start.

Hughes has talked to Piekarska about coming to visit her running mates on their home turf, having already learned a few words of the language and sampled some Polish hip-hop courtesy of Piekarska and Krezel. But for now, they'll keep spreading the wealth on the court.

Two plus two sometimes equals one.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.