Quarterfinal Loss in Big West Tournament Throws Wrench in ‘Eaters Turnaround Season

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No. 3 seeded UC Irvine women’s basketball (18-13) may have entered Titan Gym on Thursday night as the hopeful favorites, looking to keep what has been a storybook season alive, but senior guard Michelle Curry of the opposing No.6 seeded UC Riverside (11-21) was out on a mission to pen another narrative.

Dropping 40 points and snagging 10 rebounds, Curry turned the page on the ‘Eaters, sending UCI packing earlier than expected with an 86-74 loss.

Curry’s 40-piece came on 47 percent shooting from the floor and marked the third best scoring performance the conference has seen while her 18 free throws shattered Big West records. In a fourth period that opened with a four-point advantage in favor of UCI, Curry put up seven straight for the Highlanders; her last jumper handing Riverside the lead at 69-67. UCI would not overturn that run again.

“[Curry] was just relentless,” head coach Tamara Inoue said. “We couldn’t stop fouling her [because] she’s extremely crafty and does a great job of dipping her shoulder and drawing fouls. She scored 18 points from the foul line, that’s pretty tough to stop that because you can’t defend it.”

While it was rather difficult to spot a moment where Curry had not left a mark on the floor, UCI player of the year candidate and conference first team honoree Morgan Green was considerably absent from the game, having been sidelined with two fouls early on while eventually being eliminated with 3:09 still left to play.

Along with Green, sophomore guard Lauren Saiki and freshman forward Tahlia Garza also drew five whistles each and faced exited the game while conference freshman of the year recipient Jordan Sanders played on with four. In all, the ‘Eaters navigated through a tightly called contest, racking up 31 team fouls by the end of the night.

Green still, however, stayed as actively as she could for her team. Despite playing a season-low 22 minutes, Green still managed to log 17 points, four assists, and two steals.

“It was tough, but thankfully I had some experience with that in the beginning of the season,” Green said of her personal foul troubles as well as that of her team. “I have no trouble being there with my teammates if I’m on the floor or off the floor.”

Sanders was also brilliant at spurts in her very first tournament go with 16 points and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, junior guard Andee Ritter, the veteran of the bunch as the only ‘Eater who remains on the roster since the 2015-16 campaign, finished with 11 points and went 3-4 from beyond the arc.

UCI did not begin the game shooting particularly well, converting on just 20 percent of their shot attempts, but kept Riverside at bay with their effort on the glass. The ‘Eaters snagged nine offensive boards and secured six better than their opposition with a total of 15 to end the period. Their hustle would help them answer the Highlanders efficient 42.9 shooting, as the score remained deadlocked at 19 apiece.

The Highlanders went on a 10-4 run that carried for four minutes into the second to take a 29-23 edge. The ‘Eaters, however, found their offensive groove and improved their shooting drastically to 64.3 percent in quarter.

Beginning with a deuce from junior guard Deijah Blanks followed by a triple from Green, the ‘Eaters returned fire and were just one away from tying it up. Although UCI would stay within a one or two point deficit, going on to snag a single-digit 44-43 lead of their own heading into the half, there were accentuated issues that would come back to bite the ‘Eaters down the stretch.

For one, Curry was near unguardable. The Culver City High product followed up her six points in the first with 11 in the second and even more problematically, drained nine of her 10 attempts from the line having drawn five of UCI’s eight fouls in the period. UCI had already given up seven whistles in the first.

The Highlanders also caught up with the ‘Eaters on the glass and bested UCI, 9-5, and would go on to win that battle with a final tally at 44-39 in that department.

For what shaped out to be a great third quarter for the ‘Eaters, much of these concerns did not come to afore. While their offense had improved in the second, the ‘Eaters turned up another gear in the third, running their quick lethal sets to go on their longest momentum ride on the night. Green came out attacking the paint where she recorded five quick points on an and-one lay-up followed by another swift finger-roll. A Ritter triple and later an easy deuce from first year forward Tahlia Garza gave the ‘Eaters their largest lead of the night at nine, 58-49.

Things began to take a turn, however, as the game became reminiscent of the first half where Riverside had played the ‘Eaters aggressively and drew some timely fouls. They were led by none other than Curry whose free throws would cut UCI’s lead to four, 64-60.

Curry exploded with 11 of Riverside’s 13 points that quickly turned the game around and put the Highlanders up 73-67 with 3:51 remaining. The ‘Eaters cut it to four with another Green lay-in but after she fouled out on UCI’s next possession, Riverside would execute down the stretch to secure the 86-74 victory, revealing yet another discrepancy between the two squad: experience.

“Riverside with their five seniors, came out and played like seniors and didn’t want to go home,” coach Inoue said. “I think experience definitely showed on their team where we kind of faltered a little bit towards the fourth quarter.”

While the ‘Eaters’ quarterfinal exit does leave a dent in an otherwise noteworthy season that has saw a 13-game improvement as of March 4 from last year—the best turnaround in all of NCAA competitors, UCI is still quite a young team who is only graduating one senior this year.

“I can use youth one more year as an excuse,” coach Inoue said with a little grin in a postgame interview after the game. “We are very young…my core is [composed of] freshman and sophomores obviously. I still think I have the best player in the conference sitting next to me [in Morgan Green] and she leads us everyday. I think there is something very special here in Irvine that is brewing.

Even with the loss, however, coach Inoue is hopeful that the body of work in which her team has put up will earn them an invitation to a postseason tournament.

“Oh we’re not done yet,” coach Inoue said. “We’re going postseason.

But to sum up the season thus far, coach Inoue could only cite the growth her team has made and the growth that will soon come with difficult losses such as those on Thursday.

“What you can see this year from my team is a sign of a young team [with] a lot of lulls and a lot of highs…a lot of adjustments and learning quickly. It’s a long season and when you rely on the majority of the team being freshman and sophomores, it’s not a physical drain but a mental drain…[but] no question they give you everything they have and they try their hardest but sometimes when they fall short, they need help to get picked up. Morgan does a great job out there but we need more than just one person out there [to pick others up] and that will come moving forward.”

Green reflected similar sentiments as that of her coach.

“I think there were a lot of positives to take from this year…and it’s not over as coach said,” Green said. “We had a great turnaround [with] 18 wins and we may potentially collect some more by the end of this season…from there, it’s all about the marginal growth after that because we have had such a vast improvement this year. I don’t think we should be so down on ourselves, we had a great year.”

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