Photo by Jon Reyna/Staff

The UC Irvine Women’s Basketball team (21-10, 15-4) defeated the UC Davis Aggies (15-13, 8-9) 84-75 at the Dollar Loan Center Arena on March 11. This win advances Irvine to the finals of the 2022 Hercules Tires Big West Championships, presented by the Hawaiian Islands. 

Redshirt freshman guard Kayla Williams led the Anteaters, finishing with 22 points, four rebounds and four steals. Sophomore guard Chloe Webb finished with 14 points, and graduate forward Naomi Hunt scored 11 points while adding four rebounds to the Anteaters’ victory. 

Davis redshirt senior post Sage Stobbart started off with a crafty jumper, giving the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. However, UCI quickly answered with three free throws from sophomore guard Jayde Cadee to take their first lead of the game, 3-2. 

The Anteaters cranked up their defense early, forcing the Aggies into turnovers. but they were unable to hit a shot from the field in the first four minutes. The Aggies soon powered through a 7-0 run. 

Aggie senior forward Cierra Hall, had a field day in the first half, finishing with 20 points and 14 rebounds in 44 minutes for the Aggies and scoring the final bucket of the first quarter. UCI led 13-10 heading into the second quarter.

Irvine opened the quarter on a quick 5-0 run with a layup by Webb and a three-pointer from freshman guard Nikki Tom. The ‘Eaters extended their lead to six after a momentum-changing three-pointer by Hunt. 

The ‘Eaters continued a suffocating perimeter defense, allowing them to get easy transition buckets. Williams finished a nice crossover layup, giving the Anteaters a 31-22 lead heading into the break.

The first half was a complete team effort for the Anteaters, with no player scoring over four points. On the Aggie side, Hall led scoring with eight points in the first half.

The Anteaters began the second half with a three-quarter court press, but they were met with resilience from the Aggies. After  Webb made a steal and then a transition layup, UCI took their largest lead of11 points with seven minutes left in the third quarter. But soon, Davis sophomore guard Evanne Turner scored five consecutive points — three coming from beyond the arc — to bring the Aggies within six. 

Turner led UC Davis in scoring with 22 points and four three pointers. This prompted UCI’s head coach Tamara Inoue to task Hunt with defending Turner. Hunt later commented on Inoue’s decision.

Irvine kept Davis within arm’s reach. A stepback midrange by Williams seemed to give UCI cushion, with the score at 45-37. In response, the Aggies went on a 10-1 run, taking the lead, 47-46, by the end of the third. Hall scored half of her team’s points during this run.

Irvine sophomore forward Sophia Locandro — who was 1/15 on three’s during the season — knocked down a rare three-pointer to give the lead back to UCI at the start of the fourth, 49-47. The two teams exchanged baskets and the tension in the arena was palpable. 

The tide changed for the ‘Eaters after Williams sustained an apparent leg injury and began to limp. Hall then scored an inside bucket to cut UC Davis’s lead to five. It seemed like the Aggies had the game under their control. 

But the Anteaters did not want their road to end here. Williams shook off her pain and hit two free throws after getting fouled. She then hit a huge stepback three-pointer to tie the game at 59. With just under a minute left, however, Hall made an inside bank shot and got fouled, putting the Aggies up by three. 

Hunt proceeded to drive the ball inside and was fouled, but only made one of two free throws. With under 30 seconds left Williams stole the ball from the Aggies as Inoue frantically called time-out. 

“We talked about [the defensive possession] in the huddle. Don’t foul. Try to get the steal. We were lucky enough to get our hands on the ball and have it go our way,” Williams said after the game.

Williams then hit a tough layup over two defenders to tie it up. Turner missed a three-pointer in regulation. The game then went into overtime.

The ‘Eaters sensed a championship game berth and went on a 10-2 run to begin the extra period. Hunt hit back-to-back threes during the run and effectively set the tone for the rest of the period.

“I had confidence in myself because I’ve worked for it for many years. I just let it fly,” Hunt said after the game.

From then on, the Aggies ran out of gas and could not keep up with UCI. The Anteaters won, 84-75, and secured their spot in the Big West championship game.

Coach Inoue spoke about her team’s hot start in the opening moments of overtime.

“The only team I believe in is mine … With Naomi starting off with those threes — it’s all about the game of runs. Hitting those three’s first just sets the momentum of the war,” Inoue said.

Inoue also was not phased by the runs that allowed UC Davis to take a momentary lead.

“We knew those runs were going to come and then we just did a good job battling back. I’m just really happy that we’ll go on to the championship game,” she said.

The Anteaters will continue their postseason campaign when they take on the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine on March 12 at 5 p.m. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.

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.