Returning home for the first time since Nov. 11th, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (1-8) was engaged in yet another contest that had the makings of a perfect comeback.
Much like their game against Portland State last weekend, the ‘Eaters found themselves down early again during Saturday evenings matchup against Sacramento State (4-6), falling down by 11 before the end of the first quarter. But characteristic of their relentless effort in their past few games, the ‘Eaters powered right back in a strong second half where they had knotted the game four times while holding the lead on three occasions (including a moment in the fourth with just a little over five minutes to go).
Defensively, the ‘Eaters forced 20 Hornet turnovers and also became just one of three teams to hold them under 80 points. The Hornets went into the contest averaging 89.4 points a night, placing them fifth in the nation.
“We held them to a pretty low score and that is something that we really pride ourselves on,” head coach Inoue said.
And yet a few untimely turnovers and missed free throws—also attributes that have defined the team’s issues of late—would allow the Hornets to hold off the ‘Eaters for a 78-70 victory.
It’s a good thing that we can battle back and that we’re showing some fight,” head coach Tamara Inoue said. “Being depleted is not an excuse but we’re not very deep and for our players to battle with a really high [and] intense scramble team was good for us. Just a couple of buckets here [and] a couple of stops there is always a difference…and I think that if we just buckle up with a little minor tweaks, we’ll fix it.”
Junior forward Sabrina Engelstad found the mismatch in the paint and registered her seventh double-digit scoring outing and topped her season high with 18 points and six rebounds.
“Sabrina is getting better every single day,” coach Inoue said. “She’s a good leader…she talks a lot [and] she gets the kids playing hard. I just think that Sabrina needs to be wanting the ball more [and] demanding the ball more…it’s not a selfish thing if it helps us out. Her dad was obviously a great player and she could be just as good. I really think that she could do a great job here.”
Senior forward Shereen Sutherland also made her presence felt with 15 points and three rebounds of her own.
However, Engelstad and Sutherland were both plagued with foul trouble and played no more than 21 minutes in the contest. Both forwards would go on to foul out in the final period.
UCI’s starting guards in sophomore Andee Ritter and freshman Brooke Bayman played with active hands, combining for nine steals on the night. Ritter and Bayman also chipped in 20 points for the ‘Eaters, 12 and eight points respectively.
The ‘Eaters also had some more hands on deck with the well-needed return of senior forward McKenzie Piper, who was out with an injury since Nov.19, and junior guard Sydney Hua, a transfer from LA Valley College who was also sidelined for the team’s first eight games due to injury. In her season debut, Hua dropped in six points and a team high seven rebounds.
“They got thrown into the fire a bit today…but I thought it was good to get their feet wet,” coach Inoue said. “I thought Sydney did well…she’s such a smart player. We watch film together and she’s answering questions before I could say it. She’s been working on everything…and she’ll be a great addition to just having another ball handler and shooter out there.”
Sacramento pushed the tempo from the tip, utilizing a run-and-gun attack to take an early 7-2 advantage and would keep the lead until a Ritter triple, Engelstad jumper, and Bayman lay-in brought the game to a draw at 9-9.
Hornets’ junior guard Marianne Johnson, who finished with a game high 24 points, drained two threes to help overturn a back and forth period into the hands of the Hornets once more.
In the second period, the ‘Eaters trudged through a three minute dry spell to narrow a 10 point deficit to five before Sacramento’s redshirt senior guard Emily Easom drained the Hornets’ third triple in the quarter, seventh on the half, to tug the lead back up to eight.
However, with seven seconds left until the half, Ritter took a step in from the arc and knocked down a jumper to bring the score to 35-29.
UCI would carry on their run in the third, scoring six unanswered to deadlock the game at 35-35 and force the Hornets to regroup on a timeout. When Engelstad and Sutherland went off from within the paint, scoring 14 of the ‘Eaters 18 points in the period on free throw attempts and lay-ups, UCI would go on to overtake the lead, 41-40, on an Engelstad free throw with 7:41 remaining in the period.
“That was the key…you got to keep getting the ball inside,” coach Inoue said. “They’re not very tall in there…they adjusted to us…I’ll take that credit of getting them to sub in their big that doesn’t play [and] that’s a good sign.”
As the Hornets responded with an even more aggressive attack that would carry them into the fourth with a four point advantage, 51-47, UCI continued to feed Engelstad in the paint where she would again, bring the ‘Eaters over the top by drawing a foul and hitting a free throw to set the score at 62-61.
Playing with four fouls, however, the Hornets would continue to attack Engelstad on the offense where they recaptured the lead on two consecutive lay-ups as the 7-footer would not have a choice but to stand her ground with her hands straight up. When Engelstad fouled out nearing the two-minute mark on an attempt to recover a missed free throw, Sutherland checked in and also fouled out shortly after.
Without their two leading scorers, Johnson broke out on a lay up and Easom converted both her free throws with just 28 seconds left in regulation to spoil the ‘Eaters’ comeback and cap the game off at 78-70.
“I felt like we were there the whole time,” Engelstad said. “We fought really hard and I think we only lost the first and fourth quarter. I think we have to be more in control of things we can control [which are] turnovers, free throws, rebounds, and stuff like that.”
UCI will look to take on some wins with their next six games coming within the friendly confines of the Bren Events Center. However, the ‘Eaters upcoming schedule will continue to test and challenge the team as they will begin the stretch by hosting UNLV (6-1) Monday at 5:00pm.
“It’s kind of the same thing we’ve been doing last weekend,” coach Inoue said. “We just got to keep the score close. We’re going to get one…we just got to get a chance to do that…to put ourselves in an opportunity to do that.”