Photo by Marcus Carrillo/Staff

The widely anticipated opening of the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Women’s Basketball Championship, presented by the Hawaiian Islands matchup between the UC Irvine Anteaters and the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos Women’s Basketball teams, tipped off on March 10, 2021, at the Michelob ULTRA Arena. The arena was filled with a calm ambience as both teams prepared for high-energy and high-scoring that embodied the spirit of a championship game. 

Opening tip-off gave the Anteaters the first possession of the game, which resulted in a turnover, an issue the ‘Eaters carried over from the regular season. Similarly, the Gauchos had a turnover on their first possession, giving UCSB’s senior shooting guard Doris Jones first points of the game after draining a wide-open three. 

For much of the first half, turnovers could be attributed to the sloppy passing and ball-handling from both teams, though both sides were locked in and wired to play defense. Much of the Gauchos’ close rim playstyle was packed by the ‘Eater’s guarding, forcing the Gauchos to put up threes and contested mid-range shots that did not find the net on many occasions. 

UCI, also attacking in the paint, was able to stay within one possession throughout the whole first quarter. Neither team was able to pull ahead as the score was tied, 12-12, with under four minutes left.

The Gauchos changed their focus to freeing up three-point shooters as UCI effectively clogged driving lanes. Santa Barbara’s redshirt junior guard, Bri Anugwom, was only able to complete one three before UCI went on a 6-0 scoring run to trail a point behind, 18-17.

The first quarter wrapped up with Irvine’s senior guard Dani Guglielmo fouling UCSB’s redshirt senior shooting guard Doris Jones at the three. Jones made two of her three free throws to end the quarter, 19-18.

The second quarter sang a different tune, as the Gauchos managed to make the proper adjustments from the shooting woes of the first quarter, pulling ahead and exploiting the weak perimeter defense and spacing by the ‘Eaters. 

With two minutes left before the end of the quarter, the Gauchos led the Anteaters by nine, 43-32. The energy played in the opening of the first was revived as the two teams exchanged buckets in the fast break. 

The Gauchos’ final possession attempted to hold onto the ball and drain the clock and score, but ultimately failed as the Gauchos’ senior point guard Danae Miller was packed by Guglielmo, and the rebounded ball was mishandled by Jones for a missed layup. 

With only four seconds left on the clock, UCI’s sophomore guard Jayde Cadee came down with the defensive rebound and launched the ball to redshirt freshman guard Chloe Webb, who cut the lead to six points as she drained a deep ranged three to end the half, 46-40. 

The Gauchos opened the third by raining threes in the desert while UCI kept up with their shooting power to try to find success inside the key. With four minutes gone by, the Anteaters found themselves behind 60-50. 

Irvine remained persistent inside the free-throw lane as they fed sophomore forward Sophia Locandro in the paint to tower shots over her defenders. By doing so, shooters around the perimeter also opened up and sank open shots.

Through Guglielmo and Cadee’s clutch three-point shooting, along with Locandro’s strong inside presence, the Anteaters crawled back from the 10-point deficit. Guglielmo gave UCI their first lead in the third quarter, 67-65, after converting a four-point play with around a minute and a half left on the clock.

The two teams fought an evenly matched battle throughout the rest of the quarter. By the ending buzzer, the Gauchos led 70-67.

The offensive onslaught only continued in the fourth quarter, keeping the tit-for-tat threes since the third quarter. Senior guard Haleigh Talbert also joined in the game, playing a pivotal role in the offense’s chemistry. With the help of Locandro’s length in the post and Cadee keeping it wet behind the arc, Irvine pushed for a one-point lead at 81-80 with less than five minutes left. 

The last two minutes caused both teams to facilitate their high-tempo offense by going back and forth on free throws, as Baker shot crucial points to give the ’Eaters a three-point lead. 

With only 26 seconds left in the game, stakes were high while both teams remained cool in the huddle. If it could not stay any truer to a neck-to-neck game, UCSB’s senior guard Megan Anderson, wearing #30, cosplayed Steph Curry wetting the three to tie it with 13.7 seconds left on the clock.

With the game tied, player of the game Talbert used her shifty moves on the next possession to lay it up and seal the game — or so they thought. 

The Gauchos’ Miller missed her layup in the final possession, which was rebounded by Anugwom, but picked up a Guglielmo personal foul on the second chance layup gave the Gauchos’ Anugwom a chance to tie up the game with two free-throws. That opportunity was squandered immediately after Anugwom bricked the first free-throw, finally capturing UCI’s first victory in the Big West Championship, 92-90. 

After the game, Head Coach Tamara Inoue commented on what changed from last year to this year and what the game plan is for the next game.

“We’ve gotten a lot better,” Inoue said. “They’ve been balancing injuries as well. It’s been a tough year with COVID and back-to-back games. We knew they were a three-point shooting team so we told them ‘don’t let them shoot threes’ but I guess we let them shoot 29 times. That’s a coaching error, not a player error, so I’ll maybe find a different way to get that message to my team.”

The UCI Women’s Basketball team plays the semi-final game against Cal Poly at the Michelob ULTRA Arena at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 12 at 3 p.m.

Aviraj Gokool is a 2020-2021 Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at sports@newuniversity.org.

Jaidee Maximo Villaflor is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at jaideev@uci.edu.