By Marvin Luu
There were evidently no signs of hero ball in the UC Irvine women’s basketball team’s 87-76 exhibition victory over Occidental on Tuesday night at the Bren Events Center. With Five ‘Eaters ending the game in double figures, UCI had proved to demonstrate the epitome of team basketball.
Junior forward Mokun Fajemisin proved why she deserved to be selected into the Big West Conference Preseason All-Conference team by racking up a double-double with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Joining Fajemisin on the backcourt, junior forward Shereen Sutherland put up 14 points while grabbing six boards of her own.
Junior forward McKenzie Piper also emerged as a viable offensive threat. After sitting out last season as a redshirt, Piper made the most out of her time on the floor with 13 points, seven rebounds, and two assists.
“I was a little bit rusty at first, but my teammates kept talking to me and my coach kept talking to me,” Piper said. “[They] told me to calm down, relax, and pull it together.”
Collectively, the ‘Eaters had dominated the Tigers offensively, outscoring Occidental in the paint with 40 points to 16 while putting back 26 second chance buckets to Tiger’s two.
Coming off the bench, sophomore forward Jenny Dee took up 14 of UCI’s 32 bench points to help the ‘Eaters edge out Occidental’s second unit contributions by one. With just 18 minutes of action, Dee buried four threes off 4-7 shooting.
“I had been getting in my shots with my brother this offseason cause I mean, I shoot so I got to perfect it,” Dee said.
However, in a game where UCI’s offense had been firing on all cylinders, the Tigers still managed to force overtime. Without many visible flaws for the ‘Eaters’ on the offensive end, all fingers clearly pointed to UCI’s meager defense.
“We came out with the win but our defense was collectively all bad and that just gives us something to work on,” Dee said.
Shortly after winning the tip-off, UCI spent less than 15 seconds to score their first basket of the night off an easy lay in from Piper who seemingly glided into the basket uncontested. Sutherland, Fajemisin and Piper got on an offensive frenzy, cleaning the glass with 10 boards, 28 for the night, while dropping 13 points in just the half alone.
However, for every basket that UCI had put in, the Tigers answered with a basket of their own. After two quarters of play, the score had tied on 10 occasions while the lead had wavered 7 times. Furthermore, the ‘Eaters had excessively put the Tigers on the line, conceding 36 free throws for the game.
“We also made a lot of silly decisions with fouls,” Piper said. “[We] were putting them on the line and [that] kept them in the game.”
Trailing 43-42 at the start of the second half, senior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton pushed the tempo, having a hand in UCI’s first three offensive possessions. In a matter of 55 seconds, Sutton had scored four quick buckets for the ‘Eaters off four free throw attempts and a lay in.
Fajemisin and Sutherland came out to join Cheung-Sutton with an urgency to score. As Fajemisin went on to punch in 12 of her 15 points in the second half, Sutherland added to her five-point total with nine additional baskets.
Despite Fajemisin’s six blocks and four steals, UCI failed to collectively find a remedy for the defense. Occidental’s junior guard Erin Matsumoto and sophomore guard Midori McElwee kept the game close by scoring a combined 36 points, 18 a piece, off of 5-10 and 4-9 shooting respectively. With 1:20 to go, Occidental sophomore center Ciara Byrne crucially converted the 70th and 71st points for the Tigers’ to force the game into overtime.
“We were poor defenders,” coach Oliver said. “We let a group of kids that played with confidence get high percentage shots and [that] put us in harm’s way quite honestly. We played with no energy on the defensive end but yet we had energy to go play on the offensive end.”
With five minutes set to determine the outcome of the game, UCI finally began to distance themselves from the Tigers. Piper would go on to score the first bucket of the period with a mid-range jumper as Fajemisin patented her stats with two baskets and a foul shot. With 37 seconds left in the contest, Piper book-ended the game with a three that rolled off her finger tips and touched nothing but the bottom of the net. After five periods of play, 45 minutes in all, the ‘Eaters came out on top, 87-76.
“We have chances offensively but you don’t win a lot of games by trying to outscore people,” coach Oliver said. “You got to stop people at some point.”
Despite having an early victory under their belt, UCI will look to solve their defensive woes before returning to the Bren Events Center Tuesday at 7pm to face off against La Verne.