Photo by Jon Reyna/Staff

The UC Irvine Women’s Basketball team (20-10, 11-4) defeated the Cal State Fullerton Titans (11-18, 5-13), 80-68, on Wednesday, March 9 at the Big West Championships in Henderson, Nevada. Irvine will advance to the semifinals of the 2022 Hercules Tires Big West Championships, presented by the Hawaiian Islands.

The Anteaters were led by redshirt freshman guard Kayla Williams who finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. Freshman guard Hunter Hernandez added 15 points, seven rebounds and one assist to the ‘Eaters’ victory.

The young Anteater squad caught a case of the early game jitters, failing to score in the first three minutes of the game. Luckily for them, the Titans didn’t have much success early on either. Irvine’s strong defense forced the Titans to commit untimely turnovers. Fullerton struggled to handle the Anteaters’ full court pressure. 

UCI finally scored with a crafty left-handed hook shot by graduate forward Naomi Hunt, tying the game at two. Sophomore forward Sophia Locandro secured a pass from Williams off a hard screen, increasing the Anteater lead to 4-2. 

Both teams battled hard to the end of the first quarter. Soon, Titan freshman guard and Big West freshman of the year Lily Wahinekapu drained a three-pointer, cutting the UCI lead to 17-15 heading into the second quarter. 

Irvine’s Williams struggled to find a way around Fullerton’s tough defense. However, she made a smooth layup a couple minutes into the second quarter, giving UCI a four-point lead. 

Despite the early shooting woes, Williams was well aware of her role on the team.

“I see the floor. I’m at the head, so I see everything … I’m making sure [my teammates] are in the right spots and we take care of the ball and get good shots,” Williams later said.

The Anteaters continued eating away at the Titans after Williams’ layup. The bucket ignited a 6-0 scoring run for Irvine, forcing CSUF to call an early timeout. Irvine increased their lead, 23-17. 

From there, the Anteaters blew the game wide open — crafty ball movement and offensive patience led them to a 15-4 scoring run. Their lead lept to 34-21 with 3:29 left in the quarter. 

Irvine head coach Tamara Inoue discussed the keys to this mid-quarter run after the game.

“I think every time starts with our defense. I thought Kayla did a really good job of just managing our transition — that can be a decision, seeing who was open, [or] in good control of that high post getting everyone involved,” Inoue said.

Freshman guard Olivia Williams capped off the Anteater run with a transition layup assisted by Locandro. This gave Irvine a 15-point advantage, their largest of the first half. 

Following two CSUF free throws, the Anteaters held a 40-27 lead at the break behind Olivia William’s 11 points. But the Titans weren’t far behind, with their star player Wahinekapu making 11 points.

After a stellar second quarter, UCI held all the momentum and concentrated on containing Wahinekapu. The ‘Eaters hounded Wahinekapu in the backcourt, forcing her to commit three turnovers in the quarter. UCI’s offense soon began to falter, only managing to shoot 31.6% in the quarter. But their defense kept them up, and they held the Titans to 33.3% shooting and forced five turnovers in the third.

A 10-0 run near the end of third gave the Anteaters the biggest lead of the night. The score stood at 58-37 after a pair of threes from Hernandez and layups from sophomore guard Chloe Webb and graduate student center Tara Dusharm.

When the fourth quarter began, all the Anteaters had to do was manage the game and prevent Fullerton from gaining any momentum. While UCI never extended their lead, they exhausted CSUF. The Titans never made it under single digits until the last minute  of the game. Despite valiant efforts to extend the game through intentional fouling and heroics from Wahinekapu, the Anteaters finished on top, 80-68. 

UCI outrebounded Fullerton 47-34. Inoue later spoke about her team’s effort on the boards.

“Rebounding was our number one thing … I thought the first half we did a really good job. We got a lot of [offensive rebounds] and we got a lot of paint points from that … Winning the rebounds is something I’m always excited about,” she said. 

In the first postseason game of her UCI career, Hernandez toppled her previous career high of 12 by scoring 15. True to her nickname on the team, she kept it “hundo” by shooting a perfect 100% from the field — not missing a single free throw, field goal or even committing a turnover. Hernandez remained humble and offered praise to the rest of her team. 

“I focus on my defense and get a spark on that side and that carries over to the offense … Our teammates also just build each other up all the time … Knowing that they believe in us is a big factor,” Hernandez said.

Next up, the Anteaters will continue their 2022 postseason campaign in a rematch of the 2021 Big West championship game against UC Davis. The match will take place at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada on Friday, March 11 at 2:30 p.m. The game can be streamed on ESPN+ and the live stats can be accessed online.

James Huston is a Sports Staff Writer for the Winter 2022 quarter. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu.

Angus Wong is a Sports Staff Writer for the Winter 2022 quarter. He can be reached at anguscw@uci.edu.