Elimination play started Saturday for the UC Irvine women’s basketball team, as they hosted Cal State Fullerton for the right to reserve the final spot in the Big West Conference Tournament’s eight-team field. The ‘Eater seniors, who were recognized and honored before the game, quickly made it apparent that they had no intention of playing their last game just yet, and wrapped up their final regular season with a 69-62 win despite a furious Fullerton comeback and a slim, white-knuckled lead to the finish line.
Irene Chavez led the five seniors with her sixth straight game scoring in double figures, pouring in 21 points and grabbing a career-high eight boards to go with four assists and three steals.
“I just want to win,” said Chavez. “I’m just trying to help my team in the best way possible. Scoring, rebounding, any little thing that I can do.”
Brittany Glassow tallied 13 big points and hauled in eight boards before fouling out in the fourth quarter, and Shereen Sutherland added 16 points of her own. Mckenzie Piper contributed three points, five rebounds and a steal, while Chloe Kellum corralled seven rebounds to round out the senior play.
The first few minutes were completely owned by UCI, as Glassow and Chavez scored the first sixteen points of the game. The ‘Eaters would lead 18-0 before Fullerton was able to convert the back end of two foul shots to put their first point on the board.
The visitors did not go away quietly, and slowly clawed their way back into the contest. Fullerton was able to trim the lead to 24-10 by the end of the first quarter, and had a dominant stretch of their own in the second quarter as they outscored UCI 22-13 and went into the half down only five.
Fourth-year Titan head coach Daron Park made the necessary adjustments to the ‘Eaters’ opening run, exploiting UCI’s weaknesses in interior defense and pounded the ball into sophomore center Daeja Smith, who finished with 21 points and eight rebounds.
With the momentum in hand, the Titans quickly tied the score in the first minute of the second half, effectively erasing the ‘Eaters’ hot start, and took their first lead 40-39 on a free throw from Smith. The third quarter proved to be a struggle offensively for both sides, but Fullerton was able to take a 47-45 edge into the final stanza and put the home team on their heels.
Down 58-57 with under two minutes to go, UCI made the final push they had been lacking in previous close games. It was truly the seniors’ night, as Sutherland converted a layup to regain the lead and a steal and two consecutive buckets from Chavez put the game out of reach and secured the ‘Eaters place in the postseason.
“One thing I’m proud of about this team, a couple games we’ll make a comeback and then we kind of slip away again,” said head coach Tamara Inoue. “Tonight they came back and they kept it going, so that’s a big improvement.”
As opposed to last year, when the ‘Eaters relied on a coin flip to advance to the tourney, UCI was able to lock up a guaranteed spot by coming in the clutch when it mattered most.
“It’s nice to know that when you win, you’re going on to the next,” said Inoue. “It’s good experience for the freshmen, for Brooke Bayman … it’s gonna be nice for her to see what the tournament looks like.”
UCI will match up with UC Riverside in the opening round of the Big West Tournament on Tuesday, March 7 at 6 p.m. at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach.
“Making the postseason is always something you strive for,” added Chavez. “And knowing that we get a third shot to play against a team that we could’ve won or didn’t go our way, it’s always a great chance.”