With 14 seconds to go in the second half, Cal Poly guard Beth Balbierz drives to the basket only to have her lay-up attempt fall short. Chaos ensues as players frantically scramble for the rebound, but it is ultimately UC Irvine forward Shereen Sutherland who comes away with the ball. She is immediately fouled by Balbierz, eliciting a whistle from the referee, who motions for Sutherland to take two free throws.
As the players walk towards the Anteater basket, UCI’s Irene Chavez hangs back and lets out a sigh of relief.
“There we go!” shouts the 5’2” freshman guard.
Leading 83-75 with only 12 seconds remaining in regulation, the conference’s 8th ranked Anteaters had all but secured their upset victory against a deep Cal Poly squad tied for third in the conference standings after enduring a grueling second half.
Dressed in all pink to support Breast Cancer Awareness, the UC Irvine Women’s basketball team (7-22, 4-10) came out in the first half and score 44-19. The Cal Poly Mustangs (14-13, 9-6) could not find their rhythm offensively, as they shot a poor 12% from both the field and three-point range. UC Irvine played lockdown defense and held all Mustangs scoring for single digits.
UCI junior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton, who scored a career high 20 points, credited their win to their defensive efforts, which translated into increased opportunities to score.
“We came out with a lot of energy and our shots were falling,” said Cheung-Sutton. “Defensively, we were getting stops, and when we’re getting stops and making buckets, we’re in good flow.”
The Anteaters scored a balanced 54 percent from the field, led by freshman Irene Chavez who scored a career high of 24 points. Following a commanding 25-point lead at the end of the first half, the Anteater’s composure and mental toughness would be put to the test in the second.
“We were just trusting each other, we were giving good passes, spacing, we were just playing basketball, we’re a good team and it showed in the first half that we can play against anyone,” said Chavez.
Things began to heat up in the second half as Cal Poly’s fourth all-time scoring leader, Ariana Elegado, exploded and scored 19 points for the Mustangs. Cal Poly cut the deficit to single digits, from a three by Elegado, by the halfway mark of the second period. Offensively, the Mustangs had a tremendously better showing, shooting 51 percent from the field, with 36 of their total points coming in the paint.
UC Irvine’s grit against the surging Mustangs was further tested upon sophomore forward Mokun Fajemisin, the second-leading shot-blocker in the Big West, fouling out with 8:36 remaining.
Cal Poly cut UC Irvine’s lead to a four-point deficit, 70-66 off of four-straight points by Elegado with 4:13 to go. However, the Anteaters would pull away from the Mustangs by going on a 9-2 run, with four points coming from Cheung-Sutton with 1:03 to go.
According to Cheung-Sutton, the key to staying composed in the second half was to box out any thoughts of losing the lead, and to focus their efforts to regaining their touch.
“We just had to stick together and talk to each other. Once we get a couple of stops and we made some buckets, we were in it,” said Cheung-Sutton.
From then on, it turned into a foul game, where the Anteaters capitalized with four free throws by Chavez and one by Sutherland to take the win by a score of 84-75.
“[Cal Poly] came out and really put the ball on the floor, penetrated and starting making shots. And I thought, for our basketball team to show that kind of composure, that kind of resiliency in the second half, because we have not been in that situation very much if at all this year,” said UCI head coach Doug Oliver. “So for us to finish a game with a good basketball team who was playing for second place, like Cal Poly, I am proud of the kids, I am really proud of them.”
After emerging from the locker room postgame, the women still could not maintain their excitement as they strolled back onto the court for a team picture. Looking at the scoreboard overhead, the players hugged and playfully jostled with one another, still in disbelief over their victory.
“Look at that, it’s beautiful,” shouted a player as she points to the final score of 84-75.
UCI’s win over Cal Poly marks the first time the Anteaters have won two consecutive games, and the second time the Mustangs have allowed 80 + points to be scored against them this season.
Though there still remains plenty of work to be done before the end of the season as the Anteaters still have two games to play before heading into the Big West Tournament, for now the team can rest and revel in the moment.
“It’s a huge boost right now at this time, when we’re heading into the conference tournament. I think we’re heading in with a good mindset right now,” said Cheung-Sutton.