By Marvin Luu
Following a tough loss against Long Beach State last Saturday — the UC Irvine women’s basketball team’s (4-16, 1-5) 10th straight loss at the time — head coach Doug Oliver still remained hopeful.
“Without posting a win, we’re continuing to get a little better, and right now the goal is to keep [our] heads up and to keep coming to practice [and] we’re going to break through” said coach Oliver. “Maybe it’s Hawai’i, maybe it’s Fullerton… as long as they go out there and keep competing, we have a chance.”
Just a week removed from making that statement, coach Oliver’s promise came into fruition as the ‘Eaters took down Cal State Fullerton (2-17, 0-5), 62-58, at the Titan Gym. With the victory, UCI finds itself on the winning column for the first time this season, snapping an 11-game skid that began on Dec. 14.
Junior forwards Mokun Fajemisin and Shereen Sutherland combined for 26 points — posting 14 and 12 respectively — to top all ‘Eaters for the night. Meanwhile, UCI’s backcourt tandem of senior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton and freshman guard Andrea Ritter also contributed nine points apiece. Cheung-Sutton, who is currently leading the Big West in assists, finished with a game-high eight dimes.
The ‘Eaters had made good use of the charity stripe, heading to the line 12 times while successfully converting 11 of them. While the Titans’ had outrebounded UCI, 43-33, UCI had still managed to dominate the paint, hitting 38 points in the key to the Titans’ 22.
UCI got off to an aggressive start and won the first period, 16-9, behind a balanced offensive outing with baskets split between Sutherland, Cheung-Sutton, Ritter and junior forward McKenzie Piper, who joined Cheung-Sutton and Ritter by ending the night with nine points on 4-13 shooting.
Although Titans’ freshman guards Daniel Craig and Michelle Berry put up 11 points to close in on the ‘Eaters’ lead during the second period, UCI shot 53.3 percent from the floor in the quarter alone, demonstrating a consistency on the offensive end that the team has been looking for since the start of the season.
Leading by five at the start of the second half, the ‘Eaters continued to move the ball around with every single starter finding their own touches; in the third quarter, 15 points had been split between six players.
During the final eight minutes of the game, the Titans came out with a relentless push. Cal State Fullerton’s freshman guard Jade Vega caught fire from beyond the arc and drained a triple to cut the lead to three, 42-39. Following two consecutive lay-ins from Fajemisin. which had brought UCI’s lead back up to seven, Vega came right back, drew contact, and knocked down two consecutive baskets.
Berry, who finished the game with 18 points and 14 rebounds to lead all players in the game, followed up Vega’s free throws with a jumper that put the Titans in a position to tie the game within one possession.
With 32 seconds, the Titans gave UCI a scare. After Cheung-Sutton had knocked down a pair of free throws to extend the lead out to six, 57-51, Vega hit a triple to breathe life back into the game.
However, with just 29 seconds remaining, the Titans were forced to play the conventional foul game at which Ritter, Fajemisin and junior guard Irene Chavez would go on to hit crucial baskets to seal the game at 62-58.
Having won their first conference game, the ‘Eaters will look to bring home the same intensity and consistency when they face CSUN at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Bren Events Center.