A major third quarter surge was not enough to dethrone a poised UC Davis (11-3, 1-0) squad as the UC Irvine women’s basketball team (8-7, 0-1) dropped their Big West opening night, 76-67, at the Bren Events Center Thursday night.
The loss puts a blemish on an otherwise impressive season for the ‘Eaters thus far in their 2017-18 campaign, marking just the second defeat in eight games following a three game win streak.
With the victory for Davis, the program remains a perfect 10-0 on the year when scoring 70 or more points against their opponents.
After hitting a scoring drought in the second period that allowed Davis to take a 13-point lead, 43-30, heading into halftime, UCI made a major push in the third to put themselves right back in a position to win the contest. While holding the Aggies to a season low four points, the ‘Eaters put up 18 to turn the tide and claim a slight 48-47 lead.
In a hard fought fourth quarter, however, the Aggies knocked down a few timely triples to create the distance that they would need to breakaway and cap the game.
“They are such a well coached team,” head coach Tamara Inoue said of the Aggies. “Their seniors really stepped up and knocked some real timely shots down…they ran some really good stuff at the end and we just couldn’t stop it. Hats off to them…that’s why they are picked to be the first team in conference.”
Junior guard Morgan Green, who transferred from Michigan State as a sophomore in 2015-16, made her season debut for the ‘Eaters on Thursday, marking her first collegiate game in two years after sitting out the entirety of last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Green saw no shortage of minutes, getting the start and playing through 37 minutes of action.
“I’m not going to lie…first game in two years…I was a little tired,” Green said. “But it was such a joy to be back out there. There is nothing I love more than hooping.”
While Green elicited signs rust, shooting 5-21 from the floor, she wasted no time in showcasing her scoring capabilities by putting up seven of the ‘Eaters first nine points on the night while going on to finish with 12 points.
“This is Morgan’s first game back [and] you got to give her a shot to get her game legs back,” Inoue said. “I don’t know what people think or know about Morgan but she’s one of the best teammates any team could have. She loves her team and wants to them involved as best as she can and at the same time she could score at will.”
As Green is expected to make a bigger splash as conference play progresses, it was sophomore guard Yazzy Sa’Dullah who led the ‘Eaters offensive attack with 19 points—one shy of knotting her season high—to go along with six boards. Fellow second year guard Lauren Saiki added 10 points and four rebounds. It was the second consecutive game in which Sa’Dullah and Saiki have reached double digits in scoring.
Collectively, the ‘Eaters continued to keep up their ball pressure on their opposition for a good majority of the game, forcing the Aggies to 23 turnovers—the fourth consecutive game in which UCI has forced 20 or more miscues out of their opposition—seven of which came on clean strips.
“Our whole philosophy defensively is to pressure the ball,” Green said. “We can throw a lot of presses at people and give them a lot of different looks and I think that’s very hard for team’s to adjust. I think we’re pretty unpredictable in that sense and that’s where we will have our edge.”
The Aggies scored the first six but the ‘Eaters answered, falling behind Green who cashed in on seven of her 12 points within her inaugural five minutes as an ‘Eater. A Green triple would knot the game up, 9-9, across the board. UCI kept battling and trading baskets, but a couple of Aggie lay-ins and free throws would create a six-point separation heading into the second.
As the ‘Eaters were highly successful facing a man to man defense, when Davis switched to a zone, UCI hit a wall and cold streak, shooting just 5-15 from the floor and 1-5 from beyond the arc.
“A lot of teams try to answer by zoning us,” Green said. “But if we just hit our shots and make sure we are being aggressive and attacking, then we should be just fine. We have a lot of shooters on this team and we put in the work to make these shots so today was just an off night.”
While UCI struggled to convert on their attempts, the Aggies went on an efficient 15-7 run to claim a 37-23 advantage with a little over four minutes to go before the half, what would be their largest in the game.
UCI came out in the third with a reinvigorated effort, coming out with a 11-2 push that got them right back into the game. Senior forward Sabrina Engelstad, who finished with nine points, six boards, and two steals, got the offense rolling with a lay-in deep within the paint before Saiki and Green would later drain two big triples to bring the lead down to three, 47-44, with 3:22 remaining.
With the crowd roaring behind them, Saiki came away with a clean strip, drew a foul, and knowed down a pair of Saiki free throws to bring the ‘Eaters within one. Riding on the same momentum, a freshman forward Tahlia Garza who finished with eight points, a steal, and a block, would hand the ‘Eaters their first lead change since the first period with a recovery lay-up.
“We played very hard…especially in the third quarter,” Green said of the ‘Eaters effort. “We really got out to the shooters and held them to four points. Third quarters for us are typically points in the game when may have lulls…and so that’s great that we we’re able to cool down the best team in the league record-wise last year…and we got twenty more possessions this game than UC Davis…if we’re able to do that every game, I don’t anticipate us losing many more.”
The ‘Eaters extended their lead to four and held onto it until Davis’ senior forward Pele Gianotti went lights out from beyond the arc and torched the ‘Eaters with two consecutive triples with 6:07 remaining to overturn the edge, 60-56. Gianotti ended the night with a near double-double for the Aggies with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Sa’Dullah answered with a long trey of her own, but junior forward Morgan Bertsch came alive and scored the Aggie’s next five points to extend the lead. As hard as the ‘Eaters tried to contain her, she still managed to register 19 points on 8-13 shooting by the end of the night.
For the rest of the way, Davis would take care of the ball as Bertsch put the period on the game with a fast break lay-in.
Despite the loss, the ‘Eaters remain encouraged by their play and will hope to quickly get back on to their winning ways when they make the trek out to Hawai’i next Thursday for a late 9:00pm tip. The ‘Eaters will then return to the Bren two days later to host UC Santa Barbara at 7:00pm.
“I’m really proud of my team today,” coach Inoue said. “They did a really good job of sticking with it and fighting back…it was a good fight and we just needed to finish it off.”