Underthe direction of first year head coach Tamara Inoue, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (0-1) opened their 2016-2017 campaign Thursday afternoon with a 79-69 loss to the Saint Louis Billikens (1-0).
However, in a game where the ‘Eaters had taken an early five point lead, forced a number of Billiken turnovers on pressure defense, and ended the game with four different players in double figures, the final score seemed like an afterthought to the impending potential and promise that the team holds in its developing core.
The encouraging grin on coach Inoue’s face following the game moved to substantiate the tenacity that her squad had put up against a Saint Louis team that is projected to win their A-10 conference crown and a earnNo.10 seed in the NCAA Championships following a highly successful season last year.
“Lisa Stone and Saint Louis are A-10 champions for a reason,” coach Inoue said. “They are a great team and they are so disciplined at what they do…but I thinkour players battled well and they did what they could do. I give it to our players for really battling back with them and not backing down from a very well coached team.”
Senior forward Shereen Sutherland led the charge for the ‘Eaters in the losing effort, scoring 13 points in the second half to keep the ‘Eaters at bay when Saint Louis threatened to run away with the game. The veteran forward, who was the third top scorer on the team last season, would go on to finish with 18 points and nine rebounds on the afternoon.
“I’m proud with Shereen Sutherland,” coach Inoue said. “I expected great things from her. And I was very impressed by the way she stepped up.”
Despite a spotty 3-13 shooting performance from the field, sophomore guard Andee Ritter still managed to log 13 points, stretching the floor and knocking down a pair of early triples to match the Billikens’ quick moving attack.
Manning the offense at the point, freshman Brooke Bayman dazzled in her collegiate debut. The 5’5’’ Junipero Serra High School product joined Ritter with 13 points to go along with her three rebounds and four assists.
“I commend our team because they really played their hearts out,” Inoue said. “I’m really encouraged [by our players]…they’re really listening and buying in and giving me a chance and I think that if they can do that…then we’re halfway there.”
Having been the first ever matchup between the two programs, Saint Louis didn’t know what to expect from the ‘Eaters, and UCI took full advantage in the opening period of the game.
Shortly after winning the opening tip, the ‘Eaters got on the boards quickly as junior guard Tierra Hicks hurled deep into the Billikens’ paint and, with a nifty spin move, dropped in the first two points for UCI on the season.
And when the Billikens’ couldn’t get anything going after three consecutive offensive boards, Sutherland took it back into the hole to draw a pair of free throws with which she split.
“I just loved the energy that we came out with,” coach Inoue said. “They didn’t really know what we were going to do ‘cause we hadn’t played any exhibitions…
Defensively, UCI had some success with an active 3-2 zone that urged Saint Louis to shoot from the outside instead of attacking the paint. At one point, the ‘Eaters even showed a full court press that shocked the Billikens and caused a ten second violation.
While the ‘Eaters found some early touches and took a 17-12 lead in the quarter, the Billikens’ powered back and ultimately hit a stride that began with their sheer size advantage in the paint. Saint Louis cleaned the glass, outrebounding UCI, 46-25 and collecting 13 point on 16-second chance opportunities.
Senior forward McKenzie Piper cracked the second period open with a triple that kept the Billikens’ at a distance. In a game where Ritter went cold, Piper went red-hot from beyond the arc, converting 50 percent of her shots from downtown to finish with 11.
Saint Louis continued to run down the ‘Eaters and by the 2:44 mark, the game was tied up at 30-30. The Billikens would capture a two point lead momentarily before UCI answered on another spinning Hicks’ lay-up that bookended the first half at 34-34.
Showing the poise of a team that is slated to dominate their conference this year, Saint Louis made some defensive adjustments at the half, forcing Ritter and the ‘Eaters’ shooters to drive while also collapsing on the forwards on entry passes. Offensively, the Billikens slowed their tempo and moved the ball around for better looks against UCI’s 3-2 zone, which had previous success in the first half.
“As good teams do, they started to figure us out and our adjustments were a little more difficult to [apply],” Inoue said.
In a quick shift of momentum, Saint Louis took the third quarter, as sophomore guard Jordyn Frantz scored 12 of the Billikens’ 26 to carry a nine point lead over the ‘Eaters heading into the final period.
Despite a 10-point burst from Bayman in the fourth that cut into the Billikens’ lead, Saint Louis’ shot a game high 57 percent in the period to put the game away, 79-69.
Yet, the effort that the ‘Eaters was nothing short of encouraging to see from a team that had struggled in recent years.
“I think we did very well,” Sutherland said. “In the beginning we did a lot better in the first half than in the second half but if you look at where we have been and how we did today, we’ve come really far. This team probably though they were going to sweep us but we were like ‘no, we have a little fight for you guys’ which we did.”
Following their season opener, UCI heads into a long seven game road trip, the first of which they were checked, 102-38 on Sunday by another top tier team in the Gonzaga Bulldogs (2-0).