Former Big West Conference cellar-dwellers UC Irvine finds themselves in a new spot this season: third in the league, with a 10-6 record.
They are 18-12 overall – their first winning season and first with double-digit wins since 2013-2014.
The program has turned over a new leaf, reaching new heights after several down years with a revamped roster. Second-year head coach Tamara Inoue completely rebuilt the team with five transfers and five true freshmen, who all play a role in UCI’s newfound success.
The Anteaters’ new look was evident in their season opener against the Utah State Aggies. They took an early lead with a three-pointer on the first possession, but then went without a bucket over the next two-plus minutes. Freshmen post Tahlia Garza ended the drought with a layup, and redshirt freshman Autumn Baumgartner knocked down a triple to put Anteaters on top, 10-7, at the 5:41 mark. The two teams proceeded to go back and forth until the Aggies closed out the first quarter with seven unanswered points for an 18-14 advantage.
UCI opened the second quarter with a quick 6-2 run to quickly knot everything at 20-20. Utah State pulled back ahead by four, but the Anteaters kept within striking distance and eventually regained the lead at 27-26 on a Garza layup. They were unable to stay out front, however, with the visitors owning a 33-29 cushion at the half.
The Aggies took control after the break, building a 46-36 lead midway through the third period. The Anteaters responded with five quick points, but Utah State wouldn’t give in, and went up 59-52 at the end of the period.
UCI cut the deficit to 61-59 with 7:10 to go before Utah State went on an 18-9 run to go on top, 81-68, with 2:38 remaining. Jordan Sanders and junior Andee Ritter then made back-to-back trips to the line, where they calmly sank both free throws, starting an 11-0 run. The Aggies snapped their opponent’s run with a free throw, but Yazzy Sa’Dullah answered on the other end with an and-one to even the score at 82-82.
Utah State made a pair of free throws before Sanders’ layup knotted it up once again with 9.1 seconds on the clock. The Anteaters locked down on defense for the final possession as Sa’Dullah picked up a steal with time winding down. She had the ball knocked out of her hands, but it went right to Blanks, whose half-court heave went in at the buzzer for the thrilling 87-84 win.
“Utah State is a really good team and they have a great system in place.” Inoue said after the game. “For us, we’re still learning, so I thought our kids did a really great job of battling.”
Inoue’s young team is indeed still learning.
Until this season, they have lost much more than they have won. In the second game of the 2016-17 season, they ran into a three headed monster in the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They struggled against the Bulldogs’ height, and were routed, 102-38. But they didn’t let the loss shatter their spirits.
“A game like that can honestly break the mentality of a team,” senior forward Sabrina Engelstad said. “I feel we did a good job of keeping our heads up and sticking together.”
Inoue called the game a “gut check.”
“I just told my girls to let that game go, that it’s in the past.” Inoue said. “I just wanted to get that game out of our heads.”
UCI’s struggles didn’t end in Spokane. They continued through preseason, shooting 37 percent from the field and 68 percent from the line, while allowing teams to shoot an average of 43 percent from the field – allowing about 73 points per game. They finished the season 5-26 overall and 3-13 in conference.
While they had a hard time in record, Inoue dedicated herself to improving her team on the court on and on paper. They acquired transfers Autumn Baumgartner from Georgetown, Deijah Blankers from Utah State, Sa’Dullah and Lauren Saiki from West Virginia, and Morgan Green from Michigan State. Each transfer had a different role and experience at their previous school, bringing a different strength to the team.
“I was excited about coming to Irvine.” Saiki said. “I really liked coach Inoue’s goals and system. I saw myself running her system and felt that we could do something special.”
While each transfer had to sit out, due to NCAA transfer rules, they were allowed to practice with the team. In these practices was were on court chemistry was made.
“We got a really good group of girls.” Inoue said, “Each of them were eager to learn and gelled with each other fast. That year sitting out helped them get use to me and my system, and more importantly each other.”
Along with synchronizing on the court, the athletes were able to gel off the court.
“We all started getting along really quick,” Engelstad said. “It never felt that they were here to take our spot, it was more like getting new sisters.”
The Anteaters added five more to their family this season in freshmen Alexus Seaton, Dani Guglielmo, Haleigh Talbert, Sanders, and Garza.
The new-look roster proved to successful, as they improved their record by 56 percent through their first 28 games.
“We have a high level of focus,” Inoue said. “We’re still learning, of course, but we have a higher level of maturity on the court.”
Assistant coach Cecilia Russell-Nava said players are able to take responsibility for the team’s successes and shortcomings.
“Each girl is able to receive criticism and hold themselves accountable, which makes things easy as a coach,” Russell-Nava said, “The girls hold themselves accountable and each other. What more can you ask for?”
This year the Anteaters are shooting 40 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line, led by Saiki and Green.
“Lauren is the coach on the floor for us,” Inoue said. “She has a freakish (basketball) IQ. Morgan gives us so much on offense. She is able to get her team involved, and score quick buckets when we need it.”
Green described her decision to transfer to Irvine as a “leap of faith.”
“I just wanted to go to place where I felt that I can play to my potential,” Green said. “I felt that I would do well in Coach Tamera’s system.”
Green has played well under Inoue. In just her second game of the season she scored a career-high 31 points to lead the team to a 74-67 victory at Hawai’i. It was the Anteaters’ first 30-point performance since Camille Buckley in 2014.
Less than 24 hours after returning from their road trip to the Aloha state, Green dropped a game-high 25 points to lift Irvine over the then-unbeaten UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.
Green’s efforts helped UCI snap an eight-game skid against the Rainbow Wahine and a five-game losing streak to the Gauchos. It was also the first road victory in the their all-time series with Hawai’i since 1995. In addition, they improved to 10-7 overall, marking the first time they have reached double digits in the win column in four years.
As the Big West Tournament kicks off today, the Anteaters’ goals are lofty: they look to win their first championship since 1995. They last appeared in the title game in 1997.