By Marvin Luu
Having said their party words during Senior Night last Saturday, the UC Irvine women’s basketball had expected that their season was essentially over. By a flip of a coin, however, the team found themselves back in the Bren Events Center on Tuesday evening, sitting in the eighth seed and preparing for their matchup against fifth-seeded UC Santa Barbara.
For the first thirty minutes of the game, the ‘Eaters had been right in it and seemed poised to garnish an upset. While UCI had not shot particularly well at 29.8 percent, the Gauchos had failed to capitalize on the offensive either, hitting just 38.9 percent and going 0-13 from beyond the arc. By the end of the third, UCI had been trailing only by two, 36-34.
Then in the next 10 minutes, a 26-point Gaucho surge wiped off all possibilities, officially ending UCI’s season with a 62-43 victory.
While the ‘Eaters had competed hard to get the game going, head coach Doug Oliver could not help but sense the familiarity of the whole situation towards the contest’s conclusion.
“That’s our season in a capsule,” coach Oliver said following the game. “we always had a quarter some time along the way where we just can’t score the basketball and it puts too much pressure on our defense…and we fall further and further behind.”
As Junior guard Irene Chavez and junior forward McKenzie Piper combined for 19 points, 11 and eight respectively, UCI’s senior duo of Raelyn Chueng-Sutton and Mokun Fajemisin had a quiet night with three points each. Despite grabbing nine rebounds, Fajemisin was plagued with foul trouble.
UCI had got off on a quick start from the tip off, jumping out on a 8-3 run that would force the Gauchos to call an early time out with 4:40 remaining in the opening period.
The last time the Gauchos had played the ‘Eaters, UCI had managed to put up just 37 points. In the last two contests of conference play, UCI’s offense had begun to click as the team averaged 71.0 points against UC Riverside and UC Davis—two top-tier teams of the conference. UC Santa Barbara had not played against the team since.
Following the Gauchos’ time out, the ‘Eaters began to show remnants of their former selves—a team that struggled to snap out of cold streaks and had blown easy shots. From the 5:33 mark of the first period to the 5:00 mark in the second, the ‘Eaters were held scoreless before Chavez managed to snap the dry spell with a lay in. By that point, the Gauchos had steadily gained the lead, 15-14.
Chavez would go on to lead the break by attacking the Gauchos hard in the paint. The San Jose native drew contact and drained a pair of free throws before barreling in two points to close in the deficit at three, 25-22, before the half.
“I haven’t really been shooting the ball well and I wanted to attack them because I ,” Chavez said. “From the get go I was just trying to be aggressive as much as possible.”
The third quarter proved to be a gritty one, as both teams could not distance themselves from one another with a considerable lead. When Gauchos junior guard Onome Jemerigbe, who finished with 11 points on 5-9 shooting, hit a free throw to give UC Santa Barbara their second largest lead of the game at that point, UCI fired right back with a lay-up from Piper and pair of free throws from Junior guard Shereen Sutherland to tie up the game.
With 1:55 remaining, freshman Andrea Ritter picked off a pass and dished it quickly to Piper who lobbed it up to Sutherland for a deuce to give the ‘Eaters their first lead in the second half at 34-32.
In the fourth quarter, the ‘Eaters hit another drought, but this time, the Gauchos turned the corner, shook off their cob webs, and turned up their intensity. While UCI stayed pat at 34 for the first four minutes of the period, the Gauchos went on a 10-0 run fueled by senior guard Jasmine Ware, who would go on to score 10 of her 14 points within the final 10 minutes of the game.
“Both teams struggled offensively,” coach Oliver said. “We made a few shots and there was enough deadballs where we were able to get into our zone defense and disrupt them…but when we weren’t scoring the ball in the fourth quarter…they got into a rhythm with dribble penetration and dribble drives.”
Off an offensive rebound from Fajemisin, Chavez finally snapped the drought with a mid-range jumper to bring the lead down to 10. Yet the Gauchos had found their offensive touch and would not turn back. Behind 6’3’’ junior center Je Zhé Newton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, the Gauchos solidified their place in the Tournament with a 62-43 victory over UCI.
“Give Santa Barbara a lot of credit,” coach Oliver said. “They turned up the pressure a little bit and they denied us and forced us into a lot of dribbling which is not what we can do best in trying to score the ball.”
With the loss, coach Oliver will officially head into retirement as Cheung-Sutton and Fajemisin are set to graduate in June. Fajemisin will be honored as UCI’s Female Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year tomorrow in Anaheim. The rest of the ‘Eaters ball club will head into the off-season with a new coach and new system.
“I wish them well,” coach Oliver said. “My hope is that by stepping down and retiring, that a new voice and a new system will maybe put these ladies in a position where they could have more success.”