Back in October, the UC Irvine women’s basketball team was selected to finish eighth in both coaches and media preseason polls.
With just six games remaining in conference play, the ‘Eaters are continuing to shock the conference, sitting alone at second in the Big West standings.
After picking up another victory with a 76-63 win over UC Riverside at the Bren Events Center Saturday afternoon, the ‘Eaters improved to 8-2 in conference standings, marking the best ever start at the 10-game mark for the program. Faltering in just three games since the end of November, the team currently has the best 17-game stretch of all Big West members.
“As a coach, you have this ideal [scenario] where everything comes together at the right time,” head coach Tamara Inoue said of her thoughts going into the season. “You know what you can do but it doesn’t always happen that way. We’ve really been just playing it game by game and a lot of things have to go right and a lot of things have to go our way. Whatever happens happens…it’s in their hands. It’s their team and I’m here to help and mold but it’s really what they do on the floor.”
Getting past a slow first period where she misfired on all five of her attempts, junior guard Morgan Green tied her career high 31-points — the third time she has reached the 30 mark on the year thus far — to lead the ‘Eaters to their sixth straight victory with the win over the Highlanders. Since her debut last month, Green has hit double-digit scoring in every contest and currently leads the team, averaging 24.1 points a night.
“I truly believe she’s the best player in this conference, ” coach Inoue said. “It would hard to convince me otherwise.”
Freshman Jordan Sanders evaded elimination from the game with four fouls to go 8-12 from the field for 16 points.
Unlike their showing at Long Beach, one where they had dropped 31 points in the first period to down Long Beach by 19 all in the while hitting the century mark for the first time since 1979, Saturday’s game against Riverside did not begin a pretty one.
The ‘Eaters shot just 23.1 percent from the floor and failed to knock down a single one of their five attempts beyond the arc. Riverside did not fare any better, going 15.4 from the floor.
“We came out a little cold,” coach Inoue said. “The bodies were great…by-weeks are definitely needed for a bit of a rest but sometimes it’s dangerous because we don’t get our legs going…and I think it caught up to us in the first couple of quarters. We were kind of in slow motion and it took us forever to get that first basket and usually we could score pretty quickly to get us going.”
Zeros read across the board for four minutes after the opening tip as both teams misfired on a combined seven tries.
At the end of the low scoring first, senior guard Michelle Curry gave the Highlanders a slight edge, 10-9.
Freshman forward Tahlia Garza scooped up a basket to turn the game in favor of the ‘Eaters, 11-10.
Green snapped out of her slow start and put up 11 in the second. Pulling up and knocking down a triple, Green helped extend the lead to five, 19-14. UCI would hold the advantage at 28-24.
Coming out for the third, the ‘Eaters made a major 16-7 spurt capped by a lay-in from Garza to go up by 13, 44-33.
However, the Highlanders were shooting as efficiently as they would for the entire night, converting 66.7 percent of their shots. Curry lead the break, driving through the ‘Eaters defense and coming away with a few nifty lay-ups. Her quick turnaround jumper on the quarter’s final possession would get Riverside back within three, 50-47.
“I think that Riverside kind of found their rhythm with our press and we kind of backed off a little bit and wasn’t as aggressive,” coach Inoue said. “They made good adjustments setting up Curry up the middle…so they were able to break [the press] pretty quickly…but we adjusted better towards the forth.”
UCI’s most dominant period arrived timely in the game’s final quarter. Sanders connected on a jumper to add some cushion to the ‘Eaters’ lead and when the Highlanders came back with a trey and lay-in to knot the game up, Green hit a three to get UCI right back up.
The shot was all Green needed to heat up. With 6:11 remaining, Green drained another big triple to put the ‘Eaters up five and another triple a few possessions later to extend it to eight. Visibly on fire at this point, she would convert a jumper and lay-up to virtually ice the game, 71-59 with 2:30 left to play.
UCI would finish the night on the line where they would knock down three of their four attempts to seal it at 76-63.
“We just had to get our rhythm [because] we hadn’t played in a week,” Green said. “I think that by the time we hit the fourth quarter, we were comfortable and ready to make a big run.”
The ‘Eaters are rolling right now and will attempt to keep pushing forward when they return to the Bren next Thursday when they welcome Cal Poly. UCI will look to avenge their loss against the Mustangs back on Jan. 18th, one that they had essentially lost in the last three minutes of the game.
“I expect it to be a dog fight,” Green said of her expectations against Cal Poly. “That first game at Cal Poly…I want that back so badly and you can’t get it back but we have this next one coming up next Thursday and we have to set a tune. We’ve been having some pretty good wins…and we have to get another one. We cannot ease up like the lull we had that third quarter [today]. We have to clean up everything and have a full game because that’s what happened in our last game against Cal Poly.”