By Marvin Luu
Staring down a UC Riverside women’s basketball team (22-7, 15-0) that had already clinched the Big West Regular season title after winning 14 games in a row, the odds were not in UC Irvine’s (4-19, 1-8) favor heading into Thursday night’s matchup.
By the end of it all, the ‘Eaters did end up dropping the game 84-72, but not without leading a gritty fourth quarter surge that reinvigorated fans and nearly tipped off the Highlanders.
Beginning with a jumper from junior Mokun Fajemisin, who registered a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds UCI broke out on a 13-0 run in the closing period that stumped Riverside as they watched their 20 point lead dwindle down to four.
During the run, Fajemisin had put the ‘Eaters behind her back, effectively putting up eight of the team’s 13 points in quick succession within the painted area.
“In the fourth quarter, we were executing well,” Fajemisin said. “We were cutting hard, we were finding the open spots on the court and just being in the right position at the right time…it made the offense more fluid and that just really helped us put points on the board.”
With just 4:45 remaining in the game, Riverside head coach John Margaritis could not watch the comeback any longer and called a timeout while fans at the Bren erupted with celebratory applauds. Among those who were pleasantly pleased was head coach Doug Oliver who spent the majority of the fourth quarter on his feet.
“I saw some mental toughness [and] I saw some aggressiveness,” coach Oliver said. “I was happy with the effort…we had a chance. We had two good looks at the basket that could have cut [the lead] to two and really put some pressure on Riverside going down the floor. Unfortunately they went down and hit a three pointer and we were chasing them at the last minute and a half.”
Along with Fajemisin, senior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton also played with an extra chip on her shoulder, getting to the line on multiple occasions and posting a double-double with 15 points and 10 assists, the most dimes that she has had since January 16 against Long Beach State.
“One thing specifically about their defense is that they [were playing with] too few people so they couldn’t really foul…so we [kept] going at the basket [and] being aggressive,” Cheung-Sutton said.
Despite the push, coach Margaritis’ timeout effectively woke Riverside up. The Highlanders quickly put the clamps down on defense, holding UCI to just two points for the remainder of the game while going on a ten point run of their own to solidify their 15th victory of the season.
“We got them tired and we got them to miss some shots against our zone [and] some of things worked…we just came up short,” coach Oliver said.
From the tip off, the Highlanders showcased why they are the best in the Big West by jumping out on a 28-13 advantage over UCI. Riverside simply shot the lights out courtesy of senior guard Brittany Crain who went 3-3 from beyond the arc. Crain wrecked havoc on the ‘Eaters’ defense early and would relentlessly go on a 36-point assault on 10-19 shooting to finish the game.
“There is a reason why they are 15-0 in conference,” coach Oliver said. “They’re undefeated even with injuries…they still can fill it up. They’re averaging 80 points a game and now we know why.”
In the second quarter, the ‘Eaters slowed Riverside’s momentum down a bit and bounced back behind junior forward McKenzie Piper’s six points. Piper, who finished with 12 points, snuck in a late lay in to cut the lead down to 12 heading into the half.
Treading on a similar path that has troubled the team all season long, UCI opened the third cold. After Fajemisin muscled up a scoop shot with contact and Piper followed it up with a lay-up to cut the lead to 10, the Highlanders answered with 12 straight baskets. By the 5:27 mark, the Highlanders seemed to have sealed the game at 61-40.
However, basketball is a game of runs and momentum—both of which began to favor UCI with the turn of a minute.
Junior guard Irene Chavez opened the fourth with an aggressive dribble drive to the basket, drew contact, and knocked down both jumpers at the foul line. Cheung-Sutton came back and hit another triple before Fajemisin went on a clinic within the paint with a foray of hook shots and short floaters.
“I just recognized that my defender was getting really tired so I thought it was the time to punish her,” Fajemisin said. “I was a little fresher than she was so I made an effort to run the floor and take her off the dribble, especially since [Riverside] wasn’t looking to foul.
With the crowd on its toes, the momentum faded as quickly as it came. With four minutes to go, Fajamisin knocked down two free throws at the line before the Highlanders reclaimed their first half poise and offensive dominance to close the game at the charity stripe.
“It was one that was there and could really have put us at the top for the rest of the season…it really would have made us feel good,” coach Oliver said. “But we have another chance Saturday. Davis could shoot the ball but they’re not as athletic as Riverside so we’ll chase them around and see how it turns out.”
Although the ‘Eaters lost, their fourth quarter spark proves that the team has much more potential than their overall standings suggest. UCI will look to carry their momentum over to Saturday night’s matchup against UC Davis, which will be the final regular season game of Chueng-Sutton and Fajemisin’s collegiate career.
“Our backs are against the wall,” coach Oliver said. “We put ourselves in this position so we might as well get after it.”