The UC Irvine Women’s Basketball team (21-12, 14-4) fell short to the UCLA Bruins (15-13, 8-8) in a back and forth matchup at the Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, March 19.
Redshirt freshman guard Kayla Williams led the Anteaters with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Graduate forward Naomi Hunt added 11 points, and freshman guard Nikki Tom finished with nine points and four boards.
However, the Anteaters could not contain the Bruins’ high-powered offense as graduate guard Natalie Chou led the Bruins with 19 points and three rebounds, and graduate forward Ilmar’l Thomas added 13 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in the Bruins’ victory.
UCI came out the gate strong, jumping out to an early 5-2 lead after a three-pointer by Williams. The Anteaters applied suffocating full court pressure, playing for it all in a win-or-go home game. Freshman guard Olivia Williams finished a nice step through layup to extend the Anteater lead to 7-4, but UCLA came trolling back.
After a three-pointer by Chou and a quick transition jumper, UCLA took their first lead of the night with 4:32 left in the first, 9-7. A three-pointer by graduate guard Jaelynn Penn increased the Bruin lead to 12-9. Both teams traded buckets until UCLA struck last with a jumper by junior guard Camryn Brown to take a 14-13 lead, ending the first.
Five quick points for Hunt gave UCI an 18-14 lead to open the second quarter. However, the Anteaters went scoreless for the next seven and a half minutes as UCLA jumped out to a 14-0 run to take a 28-18 lead. Tom finally hit a driving layup to end the drought for the Anteaters, and Hunt knocked down her second triple to cut the Bruin lead to five, 28-23, at the half.
The Anteaters struggled from the field shooting 30% (9-30) in the first half; however, UCLA shot only 11-32, or 34.4%. The Anteaters were outrebounded 26-17, giving up nine offensive rebounds in the half.
UCI’s chances of a comeback were hopeful when Williams stepped back for a jumper in the paint to begin the second half to bring the Anteaters within three; however, Chou had objections to this. Chou splashed back-to-back threes to extend the lead to nine and stop UCI’s momentum.
The Bruin defense made it difficult for the ‘Eaters to pass and forced them to start their offense from near half-court. Still, they were perseverant. Sophomore forward Sophia Locandro hit a rare three-pointer, and Tom made two layups to once again bring UCI within three.
The mighty Pac-12 opponent went on an 8-2 run to lead 46-35; however, five quick points from Williams — including a half-court, buzzer-beating heave — closed the gap to 46-40 entering the fourth.
Williams splashed in another three-pointer to begin the final period, and the Anteaters were knocking on the door of victory–only trailing by three. The Bruins went on another mini-run to lead by seven but the ‘Eaters demonstrated the resilience they’ve shown all season, fighting back to trail by four at 52-48.
“We could have folded a couple of times when [UCLA] went up by 10,” UCI head coach Tamara Inoue said after the game. “We did a really good job of coming back … We just didn’t go away.”
Unfortunately, that was all UCI had left in the tank. UCLA clamped down on defense and held the Anteaters scoreless the rest of the game. A 9-0 run effectively knocked UCI out of the WNIT tournament, ending their season with 61-48.
Despite the loss, Inoue was positive about the game overall considering they were going against a team that could have easily made it into the NCAA tournament.
“This was a great pleasure for me,” Inoue said. “It’s just about gaining experience and competing. I know we can compete and play with the best.”
Looking forward to next season, Inoue thinks very highly of the freshmen that are on her squad.
“It’s not just [Nikki Tom],” Inoue said. “It’s Hunter Hernandez; it’s Olivia Williams. They’re just so coachable. They’ll do anything you ask them to do … We always say that E plus P equals W. Effort plus performance equals the win.”
James Huston is a Sports Staff Writer for the Winter 2022 quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Angus Wong is a Sports Staff Writer for the Winter 2022 quarter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.