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Lobo women look to continue hot start vs. UTEP

In an odd sense, Tuesday was kind of like old times for Najala Howell.

The 5-foot-10 guard was running UTEP’s offense and trying to help her team prepare for tonight’s game between the Miners and the University of New Mexico at Dreamstyle Arena. Howell is quite familiar with UNM-UTEP women’s basketball matchups, having played in three previous meetings.

Wednesday night’s meeting will be different.

Howell won’t be in uniform – NCAA rules require her to sit out the 2018-19 season as a transfer – but she’s very much a Lobo now. Howell opted to leave UTEP last summer after three seasons in El Paso and she’ll play for New Mexico as a senior in 2019-20.

For now she’s a member of UNM’s scout team during practice, which left Howell impersonating the Miners at the Pit on Tuesday.

“It’s very ironic,” Howell said. “Last year UTEP had a picture of me on Instagram playing against New Mexico. I never thought I’d be here – on the other side of things.”

Howell’s change of venue is largely a matter of changing styles. UTEP adopted a grinding, half-court system when Kevin Baker took over as Miners head coach last season. UNM, meanwhile, has transformed into an up-tempo team under third-year coach Mike Bradbury. The latter better suits Howell’s game.

Still, she didn’t mind reverting to Miner form for a day or two.

“Nobody had to ask me about UTEP,” Howell said with a smile. “I just told our coaches, ‘Here’s what they do.’ It’s my job to help this team prepare. That’s what I’m focused on now.”

Howell gladly admits she’d rather be playing this season but says she’s enjoying her practice-only role at UNM (5-1). She, like Bradbury, sees considerable potential with the evolving Lobos.

It’s a different feel from last season, when New Mexico started 10-0 with a senior-dominated squad.

“We were good early last year,” Bradbury said, “but I like the way this team’s started. We haven’t established an identity or even nailed down our starting lineup yet but we’re winning games against good opponents. This team has a high ceiling if we can find a way to reach it.”

While the Lobos are riding a four-game winning streak, UTEP (2-5) comes to Albuquerque licking its wounds. The Miners have lost five straight games by a total of 16 points. In three of those contests UTEP had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds but failed to get a shot off.

“Their record could easily be a lot different,” Bradbury said of the Miners. “They play good defense, keep games close and give themselves a chance to win. They just haven’t been able to finish – so far.”

As usual, UTEP has a diverse lineup with players from seven countries. Juniors Zuzana Puc (Poland) and guard Katarina Zec (Serbia) are among four Miners averaging double-figure points.

UTEP has just one senior on its roster, so Howell plans to pay close attention to tonight’s matchup. The Lobos and Miners will open another home-and-home contract next year in El Paso, Bradbury said.

LINES CLEARED: UNM senior Emily Lines (finger) could see her first regular-season action tonight, Bradbury said. Lines suffered a broken finger on her right hand during practice Nov. 1 and has not played since UNM’s exhibition opener. The 6-foot-1 forward was medically cleared and in uniform for Saturday’s game against New Mexico State but had practiced fully just once prior to the game.