As beautiful and alluring as the shores of Hawai’i may be, head coach Tamara Inoue of the UC Irvine women’s basketball team was not all that thrilled for the trek out to the Aloha State.
Her team was set to make a six-hour flight to partake in a late 9 p.m. contest Thursday against the Rainbow Wahine before returning to the Bren on a quick turnaround for yet another matchup just two days later.
“Traveling out there isn’t the most desirable,” coach Inoue said with a slight grin. “As much as people go, ‘Oh, Hawai’i is in your conference,’ it’s one of most undesirable team travels and one of the hardest in the country.”
But picking up their fifth consecutive road victory on a 74-67 decision over Hawai’i (8-9, 1-3), one that also snapped a eight game drought in their series against the Rainbow Wahine, the arduous journey there paid off while the trip back was nothing but a pleasant one.
The jubilance spilled into UCI’s (10-7, 2-1) return to the Bren Events Center Saturday when they were welcomed home with a nail-biting 77-74 victory over UC Santa Barbara (6-10, 3-1).
The win effectively turns another Big West conference matchup in their favor, upending a five game series skid against the Gauchos.
Junior guard Morgan Green took hold of the ‘Eaters’ offense, ringing in 25 points while snagging six rebounds. After missing all of non-conference play, Green is averaging 22.7 points, posting a season high and team-best 31 in Thursday’s victory over Hawai’i.
“I just don’t think that there’s been a player like this that Irvine has seen,” coach Inoue said of Green. “She will really represent our university in such a positive manner not just because of her scoring ability but just the way that she involves her whole team all the way through and really cares about her teammates…it’s her belief that if she plays well, her team will play well and that has been proven so far.”
Sophomore guard Lauren Saiki also facilitated the offense well, posting 14 points and also had 5 assists and seven boards to add to her productive stat line. Freshman Jordan Sanders also hit double digits with 12 points on 3-4 shooting.
Fouls dictated the pace in the first quarter with both teams getting over the penalty before the two-minute mark and ending the period with seven fouls a piece.
Santa Barbara Senior forward Drew Edelman, who averaged a near double double heading into the contest with 14.1 points and 9.3 rebounds a night, caught some momentum when she went blazing down the lane to sink in six straight points for the Gauchos. But with the ‘Eaters and the Gauchos trading shots at the charity stripe, neither team managed to make a significant run. As the Gauchos possessed a three-point lead, a pair of free throws from Green closed the period, 18-17.
The ‘Eaters got cold in to kick off the second, scoring just four points in six minutes. Meanwhile, Santa Barbara ran the ball and streaked out with 13 quick points to possess a 10-point lead, 31-21.
From there, however, the ‘Eaters pressured the Gauchos and hit a stride behind Green who scored UCI’s next seven right before junior guard Deijah Blanks drained a corner triple on a dish from Saiki to shave the deficit to six, 37-31 heading into the half.
“In the first half we came out a little shy on the offensive end,” coach Inoue said. “Defensively, I thought we did okay to stick in and only be down by six by the half.”
In a quarter that went back and forth, Saiki orchestrated a key run for the ‘Eaters, dishing out a no look dime to freshman forward Tahlia Garza followed by knocking down a deuce to bring UCI within three, 51-48, with 1:52 remaining.
The ‘Eaters kept charging forward in their attack and with another Saiki-Thalia connection, the deficit was brought to one and on the last possession of the period, Green stepped back and buried a triple to give the ‘Eaters the lead, 53-51.
In order to make the run, the ‘Eaters locked down defensively and forced a number of turnovers to close the quarter.
“With two minutes left in the third quarter…we looked at each other and said, ‘they’re not going to score for the rest of this quarter and we’re going to make a defensive stand,’” Green said. “We really stuck to that and we made sure that we were defense first and offense later.
On a midrange jumper from Blanks, the ‘Eaters were pulling away in the fourth with a eight-point lead, 73-65, but the Gauchos would go on to seemingly knock down clutch triple after triple to keep the game alive. With 1:47 remaining in regulation, a Santa Barbara trey cut the deficit to five and subsequently to four with 26 seconds remaining on another triple, 75-71.
With five seconds left to spare, the Gauchos stole the ball and knocked down a three but there was not enough time left in regulation as the ‘Eaters scrapped out the 77-74 victory.
Snapping their droughts against two teams that have historically posed problems for them, the ‘Eaters are brimmed with a new sense of confidence.
They will hope to carry their winning ways into a worthy test against Cal Poly next Thursday at 7pm.