By Marvin Luu
When freshman guard Andrea Ritter caught the ball at the top of the key, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (3-15, 0-4) had been trailing by five, 67-62 in a Saturday evening matchup against Long Beach State (13-5, 2-2). With just 18 seconds left in regulation, the Bren Events Center was quiet; the crowd looked on in hushed anticipation.
Having knocked down a three just seconds earlier, it was a wonder why there was not a single defender glued tightly to the 6’0’’ Oregon native, but no one protested, save the eccentric shouting from the 49ers coaching staff.
With the ball in her hands, Ritter planted her feet and aligned her shoulders up with the basket. She lifted the ball up near her right ear and launched it straight away. Splash.
As the crowd boisterously raised from their seats, they were subsequently silenced by a sudden realization — while Ritter’s shot had brought new life into the game, the lead still belonged to Long Beach State, which meant that the ‘Eaters would have to commence in the conventional fouling game.
In a contest that would turn out be a long marathon race with each team trading basket after basket, the 49ers had survived, sinking four free throws from the charity stripe to put away the game at 71-65.
“It was fun to watch [the team] play past the last minute with a chance to win,” head coach Doug Oliver said. “We had that one opportunity [where Andrea] cuts it to two(…)but they made their free throws and they made a lot of free throws.”
Undoubtedly, the 49ers made a close friend out of the free throw line, earning 27 attempts for the night, 24 of which converted into well-needed baskets.
Despite the loss, UCI had stayed poised for the entirety of the game, going on an early 12-0 run in the first period, courtesy of a strong performance from junior forward Shereen Sutherland who posted 16 points and 8 rebounds on the night. Sutherland had aggressively cleaned the glass, rewarding the ‘Eaters with four second chance opportunities.
“In my head I told myself that I haven’t been offensively rebounding or rebounding period lately,” Sutherland said, “So I told myself to be more aggressive and to go for the boards and in the beginning, I got that first one and I said ‘okay keep doing it.’”
Heading into the second period, UCI went cold, an issue that has plagued the team in the last few contests. The 49ers would go on to fight their way back into it, cutting the lead down to three, 19-16. While Long Beach State did manage to rally back, they were unable to take a commanding lead as UCI sophomore forward Paulina Santana drained six of her eight points on 3-4 shooting in the quarter to keep the 49ers at bay. By the end of the quarter, UCI had lost the lead but trailed only by three.
“Long Beach is so good, you knew that they would come back,” coach Oliver said. “[but] we competed at a very high level and for all 40 minutes, we were trying to make plays…we shot a good percentage, we just didn’t get there as much.”
In the second half, Sutherland picked up from where she left off, scoring three big buckets in the third to rally with the 49ers. While junior Mokun Fajemisin had a quiet night offensively, the 6’0’’ forward protected the paint by securing five boards and sending away two shots in the third period.
By the fourth quarter, things began to get airtight. Two minutes into the period, senior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton buried a triple to cut the 49ers’ lead down to two, 54-52. Long Beach would go on to answer with a basket a flurry a jumpers, which would bring their lead back up to six.
With just 1:45 left in the quarter, Ritter erupted from beyond the arc, bringing the lead down to three at 63-60.
“I’m happy with how I’m playing and getting to know my role [on the team],” Ritter said of her performance in the past few weeks. “I’m glad I can come in and [hit threes] for us, but it was [the 49ers’] free throws that killed us [today].”
A minute and 27 seconds later, Ritter would return to hit yet another triple that left Long Beach stunned for a moment. However, free throws would go on to carry the 49ers over UCI.
“Based on the way [Andrea] has been playing in the last couple of games, she is going to be a great shooter,” junior forward Shereen Sutherland said of her teammate. “It’s nice to have someone that’s tall, can see the floor, and who could also post up other guards.”
Having steadily improved offensively, rallying back from a 21-6 deficit against UC Davis on Thursday and keeping pace with a highly efficient Long Beach State team, coach Oliver believes that his team is heading on the right track.
“Without posting a win, we’re continuing to get a little better and right now the goal is to keep their heads up and to keep coming to practice [and] we’re going to break through” coach Oliver said. “As long as they go out there and keep competing we have a chance.”
The ‘Eaters will look to scratch for the first time in Conference play against Hawaii at 7pm on Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.