The impending March Madness, a moniker encapsulating the wild month of excitement that collegiate basketball brings to fans, players, and coaches alike, is not necessarily enough to epitomize the absurdity of what a difference a year can make for the UC Irvine women’s basketball team.
Their month of madness has stretched along an entire season in which they have turned heads, made statement games, and have already pulled off a major upset with a winning 18-12 overall standing (10-6 in conference play) that has written off preseason polls of which had predicted yet another lost year for the long struggling program.
It has been quite a ride for the up and coming ‘Eaters, and one simply has to consider the team’s stakes heading into their senior night to note the strides that they have made.
For the first time in seasons, the question surrounding the finale of a long campaign for the ‘Eaters was not so much how they can somehow sneak into Big West tournament play with a second to last standing in conference, but rather what top-three seeding they would be taking on going into the postseason.
“Isn’t it crazy?” head coach Tamara Inoue said. “But that’s just what’s so great about this conference…how competitive and how good this conference is collectively. To have the year that we are having…as a coach, you hope and you expect it, but for players to do absolutely what your expectations are, just puts a smile on your face. This team…their spirits are really high.”
And with a 78-58 victory over Cal State Fullerton Saturday afternoon, the ‘Eaters locked down at least a third seed with a chance to take second depending on the outcomes of a number of other games set for the evening.
After suffering four losses, three of which concluded in tightly contested affairs, the victory provided a clear upward swing heading into tournament play. Honoring Sydney Hua, the only graduating senior on the team, also added some motivation going into the evening.
“The last four games, we weren’t really playing like ourselves and [so] this was a really good win for us especially going into the tournament,” junior guard Andee Ritter said. “And we obviously wanted to win it for Sydney as our senior.”
The win itself was a dominant one in which the ‘Eaters took off in the second quarter, going on a 13-4 run to take a 25-9 lead. They would go on to stay atop for the rest of the way.
Junior guard Morgan Green, a conference player of the year candidate, finished with her fourth 30-piece game and established a new season high at 32 points to go along with five boards and three assists.
Ritter added 16 of her own and also played well at the other end, coming up with six steals.
Despite shooting just 30 percent from the floor to open the afternoon, the ‘Eaters’ defensive pressure forced eight Titan turnovers and also held their opposition to 9.1 percent shooting from the floor. The stifling defense would go on to create a 12-5 edge by the end of the period.
While Fullerton did not have many great looks, the Titans exerted their fight on the boards, outrebounding UCI, 17-8. They also drew eight fouls out of the ‘Eaters.
Green, who was sidelined for much of the first period after drawing two early fouls, revved the offensive engine up in the second, pouring in 16 of her 18 first half points. Scoring the ‘Eaters final seven points with a swift step-back jumper, a quick stop and pop from three point territory, and a pair of free throws handed the ‘Eaters a 38-21 lead going into the half.
All together, UCI improved their shooting efficiency to 66.7 percent from the floor as well as from downtown.
Out of the third, the Titans came out on a 7-2 run but the ‘Eaters would retaliate with a 12-2 spurt capped off by a deuce from Green. Ritter would step in from the arc, driving in for an unpredictable floater to get UCI up by 16, 60-44.
13 of the 14 active ‘Eaters saw action in the fourth including Hua who would ice the game with a reverse-layup that finalized the 78-58 victory to secure a guaranteed top-three spot in tourney play for the ‘Eaters.
While the ‘Eaters successfully ended their wild conference play on an upward note, coach Inoue recognizes that the postseason is a start to yet another journey. She looks forward to the madness that has already defined the team’s season thus far.
“We are 0-0 now,” coach Inoue said. “This is about survive and advance…just get by each game, just win it at all costs. You know you’re going to go home if you lose and that’s something that everyone is fighting for so we are going to play our best game every time.”
Ritter, who has been the longest standing member on team, has recognized the differences in mentality of the team from just a year ago.
“With coach, she knows our abilities and is really excited for us and what we can do in the postseason,” Ritter said. “In [prior] seasons, we would be ranked at the bottom and we just had the mindset [that] ‘March is where anything can happen’ kind of luck. But this year, we know we’re very talented.”
With at least a third seed standing in tournament play, the ‘Eaters can expect to have a bye into the quarterfinals of the tournament at Titan Gym. Depending on other games across the conference, if the ‘Eaters can snag the second place seed, they may receive a bye well into the semifinals set to take place at the Honda Center.