After giving up 24 first quarter points to Big West front-runner UC Davis (10-4, 1-0), the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (2-13, 0-1) never quite found their footing as the bleeding continued en route to an 89-48 loss in their conference opener Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.
Out to avenge their loss to Jacksonville last Friday, the Aggies proved to be a well-oiled offensive machine that blitzed through the cracks in UCI’s defensive schemes. When the ‘Eaters took sophomore forward Morgan Bertsch (who currently leads Davis with 17.2 points and 5.5 rebounds a night) off of her rhythm on a 2-3 zone, the Aggies responded by shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, connecting on 40 percent of their shots from downtown. When the ‘Eaters decided to draw their defense out in the full court and manned up on half court sets, the Aggies dissected the defense with back door cuts and post dump downs that glaringly spoke through the 40 points they put out over UCI’s 24 in the paint.
Bertsch, whose night would go on to be plagued with foul trouble, still managed to put up 15 points in 18 minutes for the Aggies. And even with Bertsch heading to the sidelines early on, Davis’ ball movement cleared the lanes and created space for junior guards Rachel Nagel and Dani Nafekh, who both stepped up to combine for 32 points on 50 percent shooting split between the two.
“UC Davis and [head coach] Jennifer Gross have done such a great job,” said head coach Tamara Inoue. “You take away one thing [and] she makes you pay in the next. You try to go zone and they’ll shoot the lights out … you go man and they will back door you all day long.”
Junior forward Sabrina Engelstad attempted to keep UCI’s fighting spirit up, pacing the ‘Eaters with a team-high 14 points on 5-10 shooting from the field and 3-6 shooting from the charity stripe.
“[Sabrina] is committed to being the best she can be,” said coach Inoue. “Sabrina is that leader [and] that hard worker … [who] wants the ball and wants to win … you can’t teach that.”
Engelstad, however, drew two early fouls and was limited to just 18 minutes of play.
“It’s always tough to take Sabrina out, but we’ve been battling this all season. She’s got to learn, but it’s okay as long as she continues to try and keep her hands high.”
Freshman guard Brooke Bayman contributed nine points — all of which came from charging into the teeth of the defense from within the paint. Six points came on three different occasions where the Junipero Sierra product struck the lanes for crafty lay-ins while three were earned at the charity stripe.
The rest of UCI’s starting five struggled to find their usual offensive touches.
Cooling off from a 21-point burst that earned her a College Sports Madness player of the week nod, sophomore guard Andee Ritter was held to just five points on 2-6 shooting on the floor and 1-5 shooting from beyond the arc. Junior guard Tierra Hicks also returned to earth after snagging 12 points and nine boards against Concordia when she was also held to five points.
Senior forward Shereen Sutherland, who leads the ‘Eaters with 12.4 points per game and 7.2 rebounds, had an uncharacteristically quiet night, posting just seven points and three boards in 27 minutes.
“You can’t fault [the players] one bit,” said Inoue. “[For Andee], I need to get her shots better and get her more than she had tonight … Shereen and Sabrina could get more touches and get more involved … and we’ll be okay.”
Davis got the ball rolling first by sinking a triple to break the game in before going on a 10-4 run that could have continued to snowball had it not been for a Engelstad triple—the first she has made on the year—and a nifty Bayman lay-in that cut the lead to three.
UCI kept pace with the Aggies offensively, shooting 50 percent from the field, downtown, and on the line to rally with Davis. However, the Aggies quickly turned the game into their hands when they got some stops and took advantage of a 11-7 rebounding advantage (the Aggies edged UCI, 52-29 on the night) to pull away on a 12-6 run to close out the period with a nine point advantage.
Engelstad attempted to set the tone and regain the momentum to open the second quarter when she drew a foul on a broken play and split a pair of shots at the line, but the Aggies could not be stopped at the other end.
As the ‘Eaters subsequently went cold and converted just a quarter of their shot attempts, Davis began to make another run. On back-to-back triples from Nafekh, the Aggies would take a momentum-defining 14-point lead that would blossom with a little over 4:52 left before the half.
Despite a Sutherland lay-up — her first basket of the night — that finally broke a dry spell that went on for nearly four minutes, the Aggies logged five more points to patent their double-digit lead at 21, 46-25.
The last third quarter the ‘Eaters competed in made program history when the team scored 40 points to put away Concordia. The Aggies would not give UCI the same chance. As she had done with her sparing minutes in the first half, Engelstad opened the second half scoring five of the ‘Eaters’ seven points before Davis locked UCI down while hitting four triples — two from Nagel — and going 44.4 percent from the field to double the ‘Eaters’ scoring, 20-10 for a 31-point advantage.
Davis would go on to pace out the remaining 10 minutes to hand UCI a frustrating loss to open conference play.
“These kids work extremely hard, and they’re good kids, good players, good student-athletes in the community … you could never fault them for always trying,” said Inoue.
UCI will embark on a short trip to Riverside for a 7 p.m. matchup up on Saturday night before returning to the Bren Wednesday to host CSUN.
“These losses obviously hurt,” said Inoue. “I’m hurting, and I know my team hurts … and so I just have to continue to go back to the drawing board and get them in the best position every game to get us to win and get close … I think that’s really on me and my staff.”