Redshirt junior guard Deijah Blanks did it again.
After providing the heroics in UC Irvine women’s basketball’s (3-5) 87-84 season opening victory against Utah State with a half-court game-winning heave, Blanks knocked down a clutch free throw Thursday night at the Bren Events Center to deliver a 75-74 victory for the ‘Eaters over Pepperdine (3-3-).
“With [Deijah], it’s kind of like ice in her veins,” head coach Tamara Inoue said. “She’s so competitive and she’s not scared. If I haven’t played her all game and I put her in at the end, she’s not mad about it…she’s going to do her job as a good teammate. You can trust her and I do trust her at the end of the game because she’ll listen and she’ll get more as she goes along…and she’s getting there. She’s going to be very valuable to our program.”
Despite playing just eight minutes on the night, Blanks also made a slew of big plays leading up to her game-winning free throw, including a steal that earned her two shots at the line—both of which she drained to give the ‘Eaters a two-point lead with 19 seconds to go.
The victory came at a great time for the ‘Eaters who had a tough stretch on the road where they saw action for three days straight from Nov. 24-26 in their showing at the UNM Thanksgiving Tournament at Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Collecting the win Thursday, UCI snapped a four game skid and are now 3-1 at home—marking the program’s best start at the Bren since the 2013-2014 campaign when the team went undefeated in their first four games.
“It’s been tough,” coach Inoue said of the last four games. “We landed four tough games. One we kind of let slip away at home against Idaho State and then up in [New Mexico]…Illnois is a very good team but I thought we just didn’t close out that game. New Mexico will be a top 25 team by the end of this year and Wichita State was just so big on us. So [with] four losses in a row, winning was going to be hard today but I thought our kids did a great job.”
Against the Waves, the ‘Eaters are now 14-21 with their prior win dating back to Dec. 1, 2010.
Redshirt sophomore guard Lauren Saiki controlled the tempo and paced the ‘Eaters with a career-high 15 points to go along with seven assists—one short of knotting her personal best—and two steals in 33 minutes of action. As a starting floor general for the team, Saiki has been selected as a captain by her teammates and is expected to continue to be a major key for the ‘Eaters moving forward.
“As a point guard, coach T[amara] asks me to control the floor and be the voice out there,” Saiki said. “I just try to do the best that I can at that and the stats are coming but I’m just happy to be out there on the floor and happy to get the w back at home.”
Two of Saiki’s fellow starters also hit double digit scoring as freshman forward Jordan Sanders put up 11 points while junior guard Andee Ritter finished with 10 points. Sanders and Ritter were highly active defensively as Sanders grabbed five boards, sent back two shots, and picked a pass as Ritter collected three boards and three steals of her own.
UCI battled through a slow first half and ended up finishing the game outshooting Pepperdine 44.6-36.2 percent from the floor and 41.7-27.8 percent from three.
Pepperdine took full advantage of their high-level productivity in the paint where they owned the glass, taking with a 46-33 edge.
This was most glaring when rebounds and second chance opportunities appeared to be falling in Pepperdine’s lap for the majority of the opening quarter as the Waves bested the ‘Eaters, 15-5 on the boards.
Pepperdine junior forward Yasmine Robinson-Bacote, who finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, cleaned the glass and put up eight of Pepperdine’s first 10 points to help her squad ultimately take a 16-8 lead heading into the second period.
UCI would cut their deficit in half, opening the second half on a 7-3 run that forced a time-out from the Waves. Ritter came out of the break with a triple and the shooting from downtown became contagious as UCI drained two more, the last of which came from Saiki and brought the ‘Eaters within one, 27-26.
The ‘Eaters could not solve their issues with rebounding—later heading into the locker room losing in that department, 27-14—and began coupling that with some foul trouble, Pepperdine drained nine of their 13 attempts from the charity stripe—27-34 on the night—to maintain a six point edge, 39-33, going into the half.
“We got to stop fouling,” coach Inoue said. “We’re sending them to the line 34 times…that’s our biggest game-killer right now.”
Coming out of the second half, the ‘Eaters’ defensive intensity picked up and with it, the offense began to click.
With freshman forward Tahlia Garza dealing with some foul trouble, senior Sabrina Engelstad provided valuable minutes off the bench, scoring a pair of baskets, one on a post move and the latter on a shovel pass from Saiki that made the contest a two-possession game with the ‘Eaters down five, 48-43. Engelstad would go on to register nine points on 50 percent shooting and five rebounds on the night.
Saiki found her own touches as well and with 2:16 remaining, she would tie the game up, 53-53, on a steal from Ritter. The next possession down, the ‘Eaters overtook the lead on a triple 56-53, but the Waves would hit a jumper to close in and end the quarter, 56-55.
The ‘Eaters also answered their rebounding woes, outboarding Pepperdine, 10-7, in the third quarter alone and would go on to tie by the end of the second half, 19-19, by the end of the night.
“At halftime, coach T really got into us,” Saiki said. “She really emphasized that if we didn’t control the boards we’re not going to win the game and so in the second half, for every board, we needed to crash hard [and] box them out.”Saiki got the momentum swinging the ‘Eaters way with a clean pick and breakaway lay-in to commence the fourth.
While UCI battled for the boards, they could not evade the whistles as Pepperdine earned 14 of their 34 attempts from the line in the period alone to stay within striking distance and eventually reclaim the lead, 64-62.
After the Waves padded their lead on two subsequent baskets, another Saiki lay-up with a little over three minutes to go in regulation got UCI within four.
At the 2:52 mark, Blanks checked in for the first time in the period and immediately began to work her magic. When the ‘Eaters managed to come within two, it was Blanks who would knot the game up, 70-70, on a rebound and coast-to-coast lay-in.
As a pair of Pepperdine free throws nullified UCI’s two point lead on a Sanders jumper, Blanks went the distance again, coming away with a steal and drawing a foul that she would use to put the ‘Eaters up two again.
“Coach T says that she’s our ‘lucky charm,’” Saiki said. “We’re a very young team and she brings the veteran look. She’s played at this level before and just her poise at the end of the games and her awareness of everything…coach T really trusts her at the end because of that veteran mentality.”
Blanks rose to the occasion once more, drawing a foul and converting a clutch free throw to put UCI over the top, 75-74.
The ‘Eaters’ return to the Bren was a short visit as the team will head right back on the road next week, searching for their first victory out of Irvine when they head into Sourthern Utah Tuesday before visiting San Diego State Friday.
“We haven’t got a win on the road yet so it’s huge for us to keep this momentum going into the road trip,” Saiki said. “We have to focus in and I think we’ll be good.”