UC Irvine women’s basketball (2-2) kept pace with Idaho State’s (4-0) swift run and gun offense but ran out of steam in the fourth, dropping a close one, 78-72.
It was a tall task for the ‘Eaters as the undefeated Bengals came into the Bren Events Center with plenty of momentum. The Bengals were off to their best start in the season in 20 years, averaging 80.7 points per game with an efficient offense that that shot a 53.3 field goal percentage — 50 percent from downtown — in their first three games. The Bengals also upended No.25 Washington by 20, 79-59, in their second game of the season.
“They are a great shooting team and they are picked to win their conference this year,” head coach Tamara Inoue said, “so for us, we just had to play good defense and man them because they could shoot way too well. We had to be prepared and to let [our players] know that they are a good team so we have to play them all the way through.”
UCI stuck to their game plan for the fast majority of the game, guarding the Bengals tight while on the offensive, swinging the ball and utilizing a balanced attack to keep their opposition on their heels through three quarters of action.
Freshman guard Haleigh Talbert checked in for 14 points on 50 percent shooting as sophomore guard Lauren Saiki picked up 13 of her own to go with two assists and five boards.
After a quiet first half, sophomore Yazzy Sa’Dullah found her rhythm and barreled into the paint multiple times for nine points while junior guard Andee Ritter stepped in a few feet from the three, where she typically cashes in her points, to contribute eight.
Idaho State broke out on a 9-3 run from the opening tip, but the ‘Eaters had a strong answer, keeping pace with Idaho State’s speed on the offensive.
UCI would end up outshooting their opposition 44.4-42.2 percent from the floor, 33.3-28.6 percent from three, and 83.3-50 percent on the charity stripe.
Contributing to that high percentage from the line, Saiki drained a pair of baskets to close the deficit to two, 17-15.
A Ritter jumper from the free throw line gave the ‘Eaters their first lead of the game at 22-20 in the second period.
The pendulum would then swing both ways as the teams continued to trade baskets in a period that saw two lead changes and two ties. Sophomore Autumn Baumgartner, who finished with eight points and five assists, connected with freshman forward Tahlia Garza for an easy two to give the ‘Eaters a 33-32 edge but a Bengal jumper from turned the edge right back at 35-33 with 35 seconds left in the before the half.
UCI would hold possession for the final shot, however, which they managed to materialize into another free throw jumper from Ritter to lock up the match once more, 35-35 heading into the break.
Out of the locker room, UCI took a page out of Idaho State’s book and began to run the floor well. Talbert and Sa’Dullah would combine for 19, 12 and 7 respectively, driving deep into the heart of the Bengal defense to carry the ‘Eaters on a steady run. A Talbert triple at the 3:19 mark handed the ‘Eaters a seven point lead, which would subsequently lead to two more treys — the last of which came from Baumgartner to extend the advantage to 11, 62-51.
“The more we swung the ball, the more we opened them up,” coach Inoue said. “They pack it in really well and they’re good at just stunting, defending, and keeping people in front of them…so we had to swift it a couple of times to get through some gaps and I thought we did a good job.”
UCI hit a dry spell in the fourth, however, as the Bengals came back on a 12-2 run and all of a sudden, the ‘Eaters were only up by two, 64-62. When Idaho State tied it up, Saiki would create some distance with a midrange jumper with a little over four minutes to go.
But at this point, the tide was beginning to turn and the Bengals were riding on a second wind. Senior guard Brooke Blair drained a triple to regain the lead for the Bengals before junior guard Saylair Grandon knocked down a triple of her own. Grandon went on to torch UCI, finishing with 19 points on 50 percent shooting in 34 minutes of action.
Fighting back from a 72-68 gap, Ritter was fouled hard on a close out from a Bengal guard with about a minute remaining in regulation. Assessed a flagrant foul, Ritter put in both clutch free throws to shave the deficit down to two.
The ‘Eaters had an opportunity to tie or go for the lead but without any of their shots falling, they would commit a costly foul as the Bengals would take care of business from the line to sneak away with a 78-72 victory.
Putting up a good fight against an opponent who is favored to win the Big Sky conference, the ‘Eaters will look to carry on their effort on the road when they will play three tough competitors — Illinois, New Mexico, and Wichita State — in three consecutive days starting on Nov. 24 as part of the UNM Thanksgiving Tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“I definitely didn’t make an easy schedule for us this year,” coach Inoue said. “I wanted to challenge us early [and] I thought a tournament with three games in three days and at a tough place to play is a good thing for us…it’s going to be a good test for us.”