I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in the UC Irvine Women’s Basketball program for a large part of this quarter. I attended practices, interviewed players and coaches, and I covered many games. My goal was to get a better understanding of what second-year Coach Molly Goodenbour had in store for the UCI community. I wanted to know more about some of the players and what they thought of the new system. The following is a presentation of my findings.
The first official meeting I had with the Lady Anteaters was on Jan. 7, a win against Cal State Northridge. I made a few conclusions about the team after that first game: UC Irvine was a very young team with a few veterans that was still learning to play together. They had problem playing a whole 40-minute game. They would probably struggle all year.
After the game I interviewed Coach Goodenbour, junior point guard Jade Smith-Williams and sophomore forward Mikah Maly-Karros. Jade and Mikah were extremely happy about the rare win and I could sense their pride in the win. I got a very different feeling when interviewing Coach Goodenbour. I felt that she was a coach who didn’t really enjoy being interviewed: her realm was the court. Although the win was nice, you could tell that she was thinking ahead.
I do not know a lot about the previous women’s basketball regime. In four years as head coach, Molly Tuter compiled a 30-81 record. Director of Athletics, Mike Izzi, hired Molly Goodenbour after Goodenbour had completed two successful seasons at Chico State. Goodenbour not only brought her staff with her but also her point guard at Chico State, Jade Smith-Williams.
I first attended a UCI women’s basketball practice on Jan. 18 and was surprised by the intensity. I walked into the Bren Events Center that Monday to an empty arena. The practice itself was extremely structured: it was broken up into a schedule that featured timed drills with an emphasis on basic fundamentals and repetition of defensive and offensive plays. Instead of practicing against themselves, the UCI team played against practice players that Assistant Coach George Libbon had recruited from the ARC the previous year. I watched as practice players such as Allen, Spencer, and Prashant competed hard against the Lady Anteaters and elevated their level of play.
However, the one thing that got my attention all practice long was the intensity that Coach Goodenbour exuded. She stood at the center of the arena where she could see everything that was taking place. There was no doubt in my mind that she had complete control of everything that took place in her program. If she saw something she did not like, Coach Goodenbour did not hesitate to let her players know her thoughts — but she did not yell. Coach Goodenbour would scold the player and then offer a solution to the problem.
The practice did not go as well as Molly Goodenbour wanted and she called practice early.
“Today was a step backwards. It was a waste. Figure out what type of team you wanna be.”
Wednesday’s practice went a lot better and I could tell that Goodenbour’s words had sunken in. Everything was running smoother and Goodenbour was pleased with the new effort.
The UCI practices involve little talk by players unless it is cheering on teammates. The players silently go about their business and don’t mess around during practice. After practice, however, the Lady Anteaters relax and joke around. Players took half-court shots with the promise of a wish granted by coach Libbon, whom the players called “George”, if they made it. Over the next couple of weeks, I observed and talked with players. I could tell right away that each player bought into the new system brought in by Goodenbour. It was during an interview with Coach Libbon that I got a true understanding of where the program was and how things were going to be run.
“When we got here, whatever the system was before, it went out the door. Everything for our kids a year ago, and I mean everything, including knowing how to practice because there is an art to knowing how to practice. In your second year of starting a program, you try and add some kids that you have recruited, you assume that the foundation that you are putting in is there and going to get stronger, and I think that has been true with us,” Coach Libbon explained.
The UCI women’s basketball team offices are situated in Crawford Hall among the other athletic team offices. Having all the athletic offices in one area is a great way of bolstering unity in the UCI Athletics Department.
I saw UC Irvine play some of its best games in January. They won four of five games during one stretch. It was a game against Cal State Bakersfield, however, that saw their momentum slip away. UCI was 8-14 and Bakersfield was 14-9, but that did not stop UCI from gaining an early lead and holding throughout a large part of the game. Even when Bakersfield tied it up in the second half — and even took a lead — UCI kept fighting and never gave up, but they could not hold on. They lost in overtime and lost three straight after that. Three of the four losses came in the final seconds of each game. This was a young team that was struggling with putting teams away at the end. To me, this meant that the program and players were still young and needed more experience. However, there were signs of a good team in the making.
UCI clinched a spot in the Big West Tournament with a win against Cal State Northridge on Feb. 27. Their regular season ended on Mar. 6 with a loss against Cal Poly on Senior Night. After the game, I spoke with the four graduating seniors and asked them about their time at UCI.
Keyonna Johnson stated that her time at Irvine was definitely memorable. “I couldn’t have asked for anything else. We weren’t very successful for the four years that I have been here, but it’s been fun.”
Ka’Jahna Johnson, Keyonna’s identical twin, echoed the same thoughts as her sister. “We had tough seasons back after back after back, but its all been worth it.”
“I’ve enjoyed my time in Irvine a lot, especially these last two years with the change of coaches and the program getting a lot more serious,” Rebecca Maessen said. “We have a great group of people and I enjoyed every single day of it.”
“It’s been a lot of fun. Last year was a big transition from coaches. [Coach Goodenbour] brought a lot of positive things and taught us all a lot. The whole staff, the assistant, the athletic trainers have been great and are here to help us succeed. It’s been great,” Mary Has said.
These seniors were the ones who witnessed a transition in the Women’s basketball program in Irvine firsthand. This program is headed in the right direction and will continually get better. The Lady Anteaters will be a good team a lot sooner rather than later.