UC Irvine's women's basketball team didn't make it to the Big West title game last March like the men did, but it also reached a tournament pinnacle of sorts.
It won a game.
The Anteaters recorded a first-round victory--their first in the tournament since 1985--before losing to top-seeded Hawaii, 85-82.
Irvine won three of its final seven games, hardly enough to inspire trash talk, but a real hot streak considering the Anteaters were 3-15 in the Big West and 5-23 overall. And they averaged 72 points during those seven games, almost eight above their regular-season average.
"Everything gelled during that time and I'm hoping the players' confidence carries over into this season," said Colleen Matsuhara, who has a 12-69 record in three seasons at Irvine. "We want to improve on that level of play and build from there."
Irvine has that modicum of momentum and some experience in its favor when it opens the season at 7:30 tonight in the Bren Center against Pepperdine.
Four starters--who were four of the team's top five in scoring--are back. The Anteaters' fortunes figure to hinge on the play of senior forward Jinelle Williams, who led the team in scoring (12.4) and rebounding (9.9) last season, and 6-foot-2 junior center Allah-mi Basheer, who averaged 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and led the conference in blocked shots with 49.
"Jinelle is a perennial choice for all-conference," Matsuhara said, "and during preseason workouts, Allah-mi has shown she's capable of performing at an all-conference level. We need her to be a force in the lane, both offensively and defensively."
Also returning are junior guards Davette Williams (7.9 points and 2.8 assists) and Tamera Thomas (5.7 points, 2.0 rebounds), both of whom took over as starters midway through last season.
Senior forward Cher Scanlon, who started the first 12 games last year but only once after, is back in a starting spot and trying trying to regain the form of her sophomore year, when she averaged more than two points more than her 4.9 average last season.
"Tamera and Davette have shown the leadership qualities we need in the backcourt," Matsuhara said. "And I'm hoping our experience will help us in critical game situations."
A bit of leadership and a little moxie at crunch time could go a long way toward turning around the Irvine program. The Anteaters seemed to hang close to a number of teams until the closing minutes last season and they lost five games by three or fewer points.
Matsuhara's what-doesn't-kill-us-makes-us-stronger scheduling approach again figures to give the Anteaters a nonconference trial by fire. Irvine plays Colorado, North Texas, Texas Christian and UCLA on the road before opening the Big West season Jan. 4 at Cal State Fullerton.
UC Irvine Facts and Figures
No Player Pos Hgt Yr Hometown (High School) 10 Leticia Oseguera F 5-11 Fr Santa Ana (Mater Dei) 11 *Davette Williams G 5-7 Jr Walnut (Walnut) 12 *Tamera Thomas G 5-2 Jr West Covina (Northview) 14 Sabrina Roberson G 5-8 Fr Corpus Christi, Tex. (King) 15 *Allah-mi Basheer C 6-2 Jr Cerritos (Cerritos) 20 *Cher Scanlon F 5-10 Sr Salem, Ore. (South Salem) 21 *Michele Smith G 5-7 So Long Beach (Poly) 22 Kym Aoki G 5-4 Fr South Pasadena (South Pasadena) 23 *Michelle Kahler G 5-6 Sr Chino (Chino) 24 *Fatima Warren F 5-10 So San Pedro (San Pedro) 32 *Shannon James G 5-7 So Rancho Alamitos (Rancho Alamitos) 33 Christy Dade G 5-7 Fr Napa (Vintage) 34 *Jinelle Williams F 5-9 Sr Brea (Brea-Olinda) 35 *Cara Nielsen C/F 6-0 Jr Gridley (Gridley) 51 Lauri Jordan F 5-11 Fr Brea (Brea-Olinda)
* Lettermen returning (10)
Coach: Colleen Matsuhara
Assistants: Mark Adams, Richard Butcher
Date Opponent Time Nov. 25 Pepperdine 7:30 Nov. 28 at UCLA 7:00 Dec. 2 UCI Marriott Tourn. TBA Dec. 3 UCI Marriott Tourn. TBA Dec. 18 at Texas Christian 4:00 Dec. 21 at North Texas Noon Dec. 30 at Colorado 6:00 Jan. 4 at CS Fullerton 7:00 Jan. 8 New Mexico State 2:00 Jan. 10 UNLV 7:30 Jan. 13 at San Jose State 7:30 Jan. 15 at Hawaii TBA Jan. 20 Pacific 7:30 Jan. 23 Nevada 7:30 Jan. 27 at Long Beach State 7:30 Jan. 29 at UC Santa Barbara 2:00 Feb. 3 at UNLV 7:30 Feb. 5 at New Mexico State 1:00 Feb. 10 Hawaii 7:30 Feb. 12 San Jose State 2:00 Feb. 17 at Nevada 7:00 Feb. 19 at Pacific 2:00 Feb. 24 UC Santa Barbara 7:30 Feb. 26 Long Beach State 2:00 Mar. 1 CS Northridge 5:00 Mar. 4 CS Fullerton 7:30 Mar. 7-11 *Big West Tourn. TBA
All times are P.M. and Pacific
* at Las Vegas