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Anteaters Advance as Mustangs Take Pony Express Back Home, 68-59

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The No. 2 seeded UCI Anteaters (15-8, 11-4) were eager to survive another night in the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Women’s Basketball Championship, presented by the Hawaiian Islands, against the dark horse No. 6 seeded Cal Poly Mustangs (13-11, 8-8) at the Michelob ULTRA Arena on March 12. 

With UCI redshirt freshman guard Kayla Williams returning to the starting lineup, the ’Eaters came out of the gates without the energy from their previous bout with the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. Although both teams faltered on shooting the ball, the Mustangs pulled ahead. They forced turnovers and readjusted their shot, shooting 50% in the first quarter. UCI was unable to keep up, and the ’Eaters shot only 20%, which led to a 12-4 run in 4:26. By the end of the first quarter, the Mustangs led 16-7.

UCI found themselves getting in foul trouble early on but picked up the slack during the beginning of the second quarter. The Anteaters cut their trail by 3 within the first three minutes of the second quarter for a score of 21-17. 

The comeback effort was executed in typical ’Eater fashion. While both the Mustangs and ’Eaters exchanged baskets and turnovers, the ’Eaters kept the score within one possession for much of the second quarter. 

Thanks to Williams’ inside efforts and the team’s conversion of three-point plays, the ’Eaters managed to tie it up, 25-25, with just five minutes left in the second quarter. Both teams made a final push toward the end of regulation and exchanged threes to finish the half with the ’Eaters trailing 34-31. UCI stayed perfect and hit 5-5 from the line, taking advantage of the and-one’s gifted from the Mustangs.

UCI’s sluggish momentum from the first half leaked into the second. Their defense loosened, which allowed the Mustangs to hit them with easy baskets. Cal Poly could not keep up with some of the ball movement on the offensive side and fouled the ’Eaters eight times. However, UCI handicapped themselves due to miscommunication that led to bad passes and turned the ball over four times throughout the quarter. 

The last two minutes of the third quarter concluded with strong defense by the ’Eaters, applying pressure on the Mustangs to force shot clock violations. The Mustangs were left without a single bucket for the last 6:14 of the quarter. The ’Eaters’ second-to-last possession ended in yet another Mustangs’ foul — an opportunity UCI redshirt freshman guard Chloe Webb seized as she made one of her two free throws to tie up the game, 48-48, to end the quarter.

The fourth quarter cranked up the hustle for both teams as the score remained close. The turnovers did not stop for either team — nor did the Mustangs’ foul trouble — racking up four fouls compared to the ’Eaters’ sole foul by the last two minutes of the game. The nerves may have fired up for the Mustangs because their execution on plays deteriorated with every possession during the last two minutes. 

During her wide-open three, Cal Poly sophomore guard Abbey Ellis stepped out of bounds, turning the ball over. UCI was up 59-57 after a steal from senior guard Haleigh Talbert on the next possession. The final minute sparked a greater sense of urgency as the two were within one possession away to advance into the Big West Conference Championship. 

Photo by Marcus Carrillo/Staff

As Cal Poly sophomore guard Maddie Vick fouled out with 38 seconds left, Webb hit the game-sealing free throw to propel a victory, 68-59, against the Mustangs. 

Despite playing under limited minutes, Williams put up 10 points and four boards. Williams moved with a noticeable limp that may be related to a lingering injury that kept her out of the previous game. However, her contribution to both sides of the ball was effortless and facilitated the ball movement that enabled UCI to stay in the game. 

Williams, one of the Big West’s Top 5 regular season scorers, put up crucial points and hustled up and down the court when the ’Eaters were in a pinch, which was the X factor that allowed UCI head coach Tamara Inoue’s team to pull ahead late in the game.

“Kayla [Williams] is our starting point guard, so she’s pretty much the head of the team and gets us going,” Inoue said. “Without her, we struggled a little bit, but she was able to push us today and help us get the win.”

Looking forward to facing the UC Davis Aggies in the final is unexpected due to the lack of more experienced players on the team — there are only two seniors in the starting lineup. Conventional wisdom would argue that talent does not ultimately determine how much a team can achieve — experience and leadership are just as important. 

“They set the example from day one, and I think they’ve learned a lot through the years of us being together,” Inoue said. “I don’t do much — it’s them ensuring we’re focused and ready to go. It’s really the seniors teaching the younger players and helping them through.” 

Photo by Marcus Carrillo/Staff

UCI faces the No. 1 seeded UC Davis Aggies to determine who will be crowned the Big West Conference victor on March 13 at the Michelob ULTRA Arena.

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