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The 2022-2023 UCI Women’s Basketball Season Recap: A Sports Program on the Rise

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This past season for the UCI Women’s Basketball team (25-7, 16-2) is marked as both historic and battle-tested. The ‘Eaters had a tremendous season, accomplishing several firsts in the program’s history despite facing adversity down the stretch. 

Entering the 2022-2023 season, the Big West Women’s Basketball Preseason Coaches’ Poll predicted the Anteaters would finish sixth in the conference. They instead exceeded expectations and finished first in the conference, yet the history-making didn’t stop there. 

On top of claiming their first regular season Big West Championship, the Anteaters also qualified for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for the second year in a row. There they won their first postseason game against San Diego State. 

Although this season was historic, the path to prosperity was not easy. The ‘Eaters lost their top three leading scorers — graduate forward Naomi Hunt, sophomore guard Olivia Williams and sophomore guard Hunter Hernandez — to season ending injuries less than a month before the Big West Championship Tournament. As a result, two of their final six conference games were canceled, removing UCI’s control over their postseason fate.

With the odds heavily stacked against them, they somehow conquered adversity, ending the regular season as the first seed.

“Perseverance,” Coach Tamara Inoue said when the New University asked her to describe her team’s success and performance this season.

“They responded together. It was not an individual hit but this team every time something happened, the whole team felt it and responded together,” Inoue said. “We all had the same mindset moving forward, I don’t think there was one player that felt like ‘now I’m gonna take over for us’, it was a collective thing.”

That collective mindset approach to every game and every challenge was crucial in the team’s success, sparking the emergence of sophomore guards Nikki Tom and Déja Lee. Tom doubled her scoring from her freshman campaign, averaging 8.1 points per game, while Lee increased her scoring average from 2.2 to 8.5 points per game.  

In an interview with New University, Tom cited leadership as the area of her game that improved the most in her sophomore season. 

“I’m not the most vocal but I feel this year I was trying to get all my teammates on the same page than last year. I was the freshman who listened to everyone else but this year I was trying to make sure we were all in the same defense and knew which offensive plays we were running, trying to get everyone on the same page,” Tom said.

Tom commented on how impactful her leadership was to the success of the team.

“I think it was a big part because we changed defenses a lot, so making sure everyone knew really helped us key in on how to stop certain players and [maintain] defensive schemes like trapping to follow our gameplan.”

Collectiveness not only assisted the development of younger players but allowed transfer junior guard Diaba Konate to discover her role in the team. Konate was essential in aiding her squad’s magical run, averaging 8.7 points per game with 3.6 assists per game. 

During an interview with New University, Konate responded to how the team reached success this season.

“Staying together! Coach T was very good at mentioning it and making sure we stuck together during the season and not letting the outside noise affect us and the team and making sure we were all moving towards the same goal,” Konate said.

The team’s ability to imply togetherness through the highs and lows was pivotal in their historic run. Although the injuries perhaps robbed the ‘Eaters from making a deeper run in the postseason, they also united the team in the process.

Both Tom and Konate cited winning the regular season title as the most impactful moment of the season. 

“Winning the championship because coaches had made the decision to postpone some of our games due to our injuries, so we were not in control of our season anymore,” Konate said.

“Definitely winning the championship because that was the biggest moment in my career here,” Tom replied.

This title meant everything to the Anteaters: their journey there was special because of its unlikely path. Tom echoed this sentiment.

“Historic because the way our season went, it was very unpredictable,” Tom said when asked to describe her team’s season in one word.

The 2022-2023 season, for all its highs and lows, allowed the ‘Eaters to grow and develop across the board.

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time but this was the hardest year mentally and physically that I’ve personally have ever gone through,” Coach Inoue said. “I’ve grown to learn how to be more vulnerable, I’ve grown to not be so guarded all the time but at the same time being able to accept things when they happen and being able to move forward.”   

Tom included her thoughts on how the season’s adversity helped the team.

“Overall, I think it really challenged and pushed us to become better and closer as a team and to know our roles and how we can make each other successful,” Tom said.

The constant battle against setbacks not only strengthened the team’s camaraderie but allowed every individual to undergo personal growth. From the coaching staff maintaining adjustments with players in and out the lineup to players making the most of their opportunities, the ‘Eaters shined bright whenever the pressure increased.  

Entering the offseason, it is important we recognize the potential for how special this program can be. This UCI Women’s Basketball program, under the tutelage of Coach Inoue and stacked with incredible talent, has the potential to surpass the 1995 team

“Trusting the process, the program, the coaches, the girls and myself putting the work in. Being myself, I’m an energy person, so making sure I accomplish my role at its highest,” Konate said.

The common understanding amongst the program is an expectation of repeating their success and making a deeper run. They look forward to embracing the challenge and understand the process will not be easy, committing themselves to greatness. The Anteaters are set on continuing to build a winning culture here in Irvine. 

“We need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves to get back to where we were. It’s gonna be a different season, new transfers but we need to remain in our system and culture and keep succeeding and pushing ourselves to be the best,” Tom said.

Inoue discussed how the program could build a women’s basketball culture at UCI and in Irvine.

“For me it’s really about the culture setting and doing it the right way and that was a hard thing to figure out coming here, “ Inoue said. “Understanding how Irvine operates, understanding the academic landscape, and also the community.”

This program is at the beginning stage of forming something special. Moving forward, it is important that students, parents, and community members emerge themselves into establishing a tradition of women’s basketball. The ‘Eaters are constructing a great culture and have the potential to break more records and make more history. 

“I feel with that type of success, I feel we can make that impact here in Irvine. I know there is an appetite for the success we can have here,” Inoue said.  

Congratulations to the 2022-2023 UCI Women’s Basketball program for an outstanding season!


Donnell Fuller is a Sports Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. He can be reached at ddfuller@uci.edu.