The No. 2 seeded UCI Anteaters (15-9, 11-4) were shocked by the No. 1 seeded UC Davis Aggies (13-2, 9-1) in a devastating end to their electrifying regular and strong postseason rally at the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Women’s Basketball Championship, presented by the Hawaiian Islands, on Saturday, March 13.
The ‘Eaters entered the Michelob ULTRA Arena doing their warmups like it was everyday business. With limited rest between their semifinals matchup against Cal Poly, the ‘Eaters went back into battle for their highly anticipated matchup against their division rivals to determine who was crowned the champion of the Big West.
As the first quarter tipped off, head coach Tamara Inoue opted to switch gears, utilizing a smaller lineup composed of four guards and sophomore forward Sophia Locandro, signaling a high tempo offense and tenacious defense. However, both teams effectively locked down defensively, making shot attempts highly difficult for an ‘Eater team that has found great shooting rhythm in the postseason. Ending the first quarter, the Aggies were up by one point, 15-14.
The second quarter displayed the same up-tempo surge from the first quarter as UCI harassed the ball carriers on the defensive end. Offensively, redshirt freshman guard Kayla Williams unleashed her lethal, Russell Westbrook-level shots from the arc. She heated up as she sniped three-pointers, going 4-5 through the half.
Irvine’s guards played a crucial role in the ball movement to free open shots, but the Aggies did not ease up, keeping the ‘Eaters on the ropes to make them earn their shots. UCI responded in a similar fashion, imposing a 3:07 scoring drought on the Aggies.
Just before the end of regulation, UCI ended their final possession by getting locked up until a shot clock violation. With only a few seconds left on the clock, they fouled Davis, which allowed a quick buzzer-beating shot to end the half, 26-26.
The spirit of high-level competition did not wane entering into the second half. UCI played over aggressively, getting into foul trouble by racking up four fouls within the first five minutes of the third quarter.
That aggression was not wasted when the ‘Eaters brewed another scoring drought for the Aggies for a little over four minutes, with a 6-0 scoring run. However, the ‘Eaters later met difficulties scoring themselves as the Aggies began to lock in defensively, failing to land a single basket for two minutes.
UCD squashed much of the momentum slowly in the third quarter, pulling ahead, 40-34, allowing UCI to score just eight points.
Field goal trouble lingered into the fourth quarter. UCI could not find strong footing as they trailed 11 points early in the final quarter. The offense was unable to reignite and keep their rhythm.
The ‘Eaters battled themselves more than the Aggies, creating many simple mistakes: travels, double dribbles and having the lanes and the arc open, like a 7-Eleven. UCI was throwing up bricks, shooting at 21.4% accuracy in the fourth, which resulted in a scoring drought that lasted nearly five minutes long.
The Aggies, to their credit, were unable to miss a basket in the fourth, drilling the ball in the face of the UCI perimeter defense with a game-sealing 12-2 scoring run. The sluggish, yet desperate UCI finish spelled a crushing 61-42 defeat, enshrining the Aggies as the 2021 Big West Champions and providing a berth in the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament in San Antonio, Texas.
“We just kind of struggled a little bit scoring,” Inoue said. “And that led to — you know — poor decisions on defense.”
The Anteaters had a young squad entering into the season, with four underclassmen in the starting lineup. It was no surprise making it this far into this competition, given the level of talent they featured, but that same youth and inexperience in the spotlight induced clear nerves on the team out of the gates, which may have had an effect on their frantic play late in the game. This playoff experience was a much-needed moment to learn for a team looking to improve their game — hoping to make an even bigger return to the competition.
“Nerves did happen to begin the game,” Inoue said. “I think … just getting out of rhythm, that’s more of what kind of happened.”
UCI heads into the offseason far exceeding their expectations. With a lot to prepare for the loss of key seniors center Tahlia Garza and guard Haleigh Talbert, the next Anteaters squad will look to make another inspiring campaign for the Big West title.
Jaidee Maximo Villaflor is a Sports Writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
*EDITORIAL NOTE In regards to the 7-Eleven analogy: The 7-Eleven convenience store is often open 24/7, much like the lanes and the three-point arc (also known as the Anteater Recreation Center) that the Anteaters struggled to defend which enabled easy baskets for the Aggies.