With a 71-53 loss to Santa Barbara (13-15, 8-7) Thursday on their last trip on the road this season, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (4-25, 2-13) will have to emerge victorious for a spot in the Big West tournament this Saturday when they host Cal State Fullerton for their Senior Night at the Bren Events Center.
Fullerton (4-24, 1-14), who won their first outing against the ‘Eaters back in January, now has a chance to creep in and snag the eighth and final spot in the tournament if they successfully sweep UCI.
Looking to clinch their tournament seed and attempting to evade a dire showdown with Fullerton, senior guard Irene Chavez and sophomore Andee Ritter put up 16 points apiece for the ‘Eaters.
Ritter’s seven points in the fourth helped the ‘Eaters pull back from a 19-point deficit and came within five with 5:11 left in regulation.
However, UCI would not get any closer as Santa Barbara’s junior forward Drew Edelman, who finished with a game high 21 points and 14 rebounds, drove into the hole and scored four points to help distance the Gauchos enough to prevent the comeback.
UCI could not find their shot, shooting just 28.8 from the floor as opposed to the Gauchos’ 45.1.
Despite forcing Santa Barbara to commit 19 turnovers, the ‘Eaters failed to resolve their issues in the paint as they were outrebounded by 20, 47-27, marking the third straight game where UCI has lost the battle on the glass to their opposition.
While the ‘Eaters did not shoot particularly well from the start of the game (35.3 percent to the Gauchos’ 50), they did remain toe-toe with the home team in a first period that saw four ties and four lead changes.
Ritter got her first triple out of the way in less than a minute into the game to give UCI their first — and largest — advantage of the contest.
Edelman answered with a jumper and lay-up to quickly overturn the lead, but senior forward McKenzie Piper, who had eight points on the night, brought the ‘Eaters back up top with a three of her own.
Both teams would rally back and forth before junior forward Sabrina Engelstad laid in a basket that allowed the ‘Eaters to go ahead, 17-15, with 1:15 remaining in the period. Proving to be a thorn on the ‘Eaters side for the better part of the night, Edelman knotted up the contest shortly after with a lay-in to match Engelstad.
In the second frame, UCI went scoreless for nearly five minutes as their shooting dipped to 13.3 percent from the floor. Meanwhile, the Gauchos jumped out on a 15-point tear to go up, 32-17.
Chavez ended the ‘Eaters’ dry spell with back to back long range bombs that came minutes apart from one another, but the Gauchos did not stop piling up the advantage that they had already generated. By the half, Santa Barbara still lead, 35-23.
The Gauchos patented their lead in the third by going up by 19, but the ‘Eaters steadily clawed their way back into the game. Courtesy of a quick-handed triple from Chavez on the final possession for the ‘Eaters in the period, the deficit dropped down to 11.
Piper made it a single digit deficit to begin the fourth on an open jumper as senior forward Brittany Glassow, who posted seven points in her sixth start of conference play, drew a foul and drained both her free throws to get the ‘Eaters to within seven, 53-46.
When Santa Barbara went back up by 10 on two consecutive baskets from sophomore guard Sarah Porter, Ritter got going with a triple and a pair of free throws to shave the deficit in half, 51-56.
Then, UCI was held to just two points as the Gauchos went on a 15-2 run to close out the game, 71-53.
Dropping their chance to claim an early berth, UCI will risk facing elimination from tournament contention this Saturday as they face off against Fullerton at 6:00 p.m. for the eighth spot in the tourney, which will kick off the following week on March 7.