The UC Irvine Women’s Basketball team made history last season, claiming their first regular season Big West Championship. They followed that up with their first postseason victory in tournament play, defeating San Diego State in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).
These accolades were no easy feat, battling through adversity at every turn. From losing several players to season-ending injuries to the cancellation of conference games, last season tested the Anteaters’ resolve. Yet, they overcame and staked their claim as a formidable foe in the Big West.
The 2023-24 Big West Women’s Basketball Preseason Coaches’ Poll predicts the Anteaters to finish in second place this season behind the defending champions, Hawai’i. In the poll, UCI received two first-place votes.
Entering the upcoming season, the ‘Eaters have returned the majority of last year’s core players, led by junior guards Nikki Tom and Déja Lee, and senior guard Diaba Konate.
“We haven’t changed anything, the culture is set and the coaches know what they’re doing,” Konate said when asked about their offseason preparation. “We’ve been working harder and being a veteran team, we kept the level high and made sure we kept everyone on the same page, especially the newcomers and freshmen..”
Tom echoed the sentiment displayed by her teammate about offseason preparations.
“In the offseason I think we just focused on getting healthy and getting very conditioned, stronger and faster,” Tom said. “I think we’re veterans, like Diaba said, and so we grew on what we knew from last year and got even better at that.”
Head coach Tamara Inoue noted the veteran presence on her squad and the important role it will play this season.
“I think it’s been great! We’ve been able to get through things faster. The core of my team are juniors and they understand what I want and they’re able to set the tone so much,” Inoue said. “It’s less about culture coaching right now and more about x’s and o’s for me, which has been a lot of fun to do.”
The experience of this team could be the difference maker as the Anteaters look to build on last year’s success.
Some other notable veterans include the reigning Big West Sixth Player Of The Year, senior center Nevaeh Parkinson, and her running mate in the front court, senior forward Nevaeh Dean.
“I thought Nevaeh Parkinson and Nevaeh Dean both did a really good job towards the end [of the season], so we can build on that,” Inoue said. “They’re relieving pressure on our guards, Nikki Tom, Déja Lee and Diaba Konate [allowing them] to do what they want to do so that they’re not getting doubled as much.”
Despite a historic season, the ‘Eaters remain hungry and determined for more success. Coach Inoue spoke on the task ahead, ensuring her team isn’t complacent with last season’s success.
“I think [the players] weren’t satisfied so much. It was nice to make history but they definitely want more from it. It’s just slowing them down a little bit and keeping them healthy.” Inoue said.
The Anteaters understand expectations are much higher compared to last season and embrace every bit of it. Inoue said that the next step for the program is to make the team’s second-ever NCAA tournament berth.
“I think it’s starting to build something special and the legacy we want to leave here.” Inoue said.
“We have an opportunity to go back-to-back… we have an opportunity to go to the tournament. Those are fun things for any fans to see a team like this.”
The quest for greatness will define the program and this season as they look to return to the Women’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.
“I think it’s a journey and it’s a long road and what we’ve done really well last year was staying focused and taking each game one at a time and not thinking too far ahead,” Konate said. “I think we’re gonna keep the same mentality and not really worry about the outside noise and what’s happening outside. We’re staying inside our own bubble and everything should be fine. Trusting the coaches, trusting one another and doing whatever’s right for the team.”
The ‘Eaters possess the tools to make a deep run in the postseason as they have excellent coaching, good guard play and a veteran core. ‘Eater faithful can expect big things from this year’s squad.
Konate noted the importance all the fans play in their team’s success.
“We love you… We need you!” Konate said. “We love when you guys are around and cheering for us. We hear you from the stands and thank you so much for being there and for supporting us. Zot zot… GO UCI!”
Tom related to her teammate’s desire to see a packed house for the ‘Eaters this season at the Bren Events Center.
“Please come to our games first of all. We love it when you guys come. Your energy that you guys bring is so impactful for us and we end up playing with more energy and are high spirited and it helps us get the win,” Tom said.
The Anteaters will open their season against Pepperdine on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu. Fans can join the action on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. when the ‘Eaters battle against Seattle U at the Bren Events Center in their first home game of the season.
Donnell Fuller is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.