Colleen Matsuhara sat in the first row of a nearly deserted Bren Center and looked out at the court where her team had just lost to Long Beach State.
"It's funny, we were just talking about how tough we can be if Allah-Mi (Basheer) and Jinelle (Williams) show up on the same night," the UC Irvine women's coach said. "Unfortunately, we had them both checked out today and we can't have that happen at the end of the season."
Basheer and Williams, who are 1-2 in scoring and rebounding for the Anteaters, combined to score four points, grab four rebounds and commit four fouls and three turnovers in the first half.
Sunday's loss to the 49ers was disappointing, but the Anteaters, who are 14-10 overall and 11-6 in the Big West, know how to put defeat in perspective. In Matsuhara's first three years, the Anteaters won five Big West games.
Forty-nine conference losses . . . that's a lot of perspective.
"I always knew it would be a slow road, but I never felt that there would be an obstacle we couldn't get past," Matsuhara said. "And I don't think there was ever a time when we didn't go out there expecting to win. But we're definitely enjoying winning and the team realizes how much more they like the feeling compared to the losses."
Williams, a senior who has suffered alongside Matsuhara, came from Brea Olinda High with very little experience in defeat.
"For me it was very hard," said Williams, the team's top scorer and rebounder the last two seasons. "We've had three seasons of 2-20 or whatever, and it was hard to get up for practice and even games. So, yeah, this is a great season. We've done some really good things, but we still have a lot to work on and a long way to go."
Williams, who leads the Anteaters in rebounding (eight per game) and is second in scoring (13), said the biggest factor in the Anteaters' success this season has been the players' collective maturation.
"The six freshmen who came in together are all juniors now and we've been together three years," Williams said. "We've got good chemistry, a really positive attitude and we've learned how to play together and help each other.
"It's about time, too."
Matsuhara hopes the good times are just beginning. The Anteaters have one more Big West game--Saturday against Cal State Fullerton--before the conference tournament begins March 7.
"It's nice when people say, 'Congratulations on your season,' and sure, we're pleased with our season thus far," Matsuhara said. "But I'm not satisfied with that and I hope no one on this team is either. We've got some more goals to accomplish."
Half and half: It has been a disappointing season for Rod Baker and his players, so the Anteaters (9-15 and 5-12 in the Big West) have to try to focus on another run at the conference tournament title and the season-saving NCAA berth that goes with it.
The Anteaters are clearly talented and--given last year's run to the tournament championship game--a number of conference coaches think Irvine will be the most dangerous of the lower-seeded teams.
If the Anteaters are to regain last year's postseason magic, however, they must figure a way to avoid the second-half funk that has plagued them all season.
Saturday night at Long Beach State, Irvine lost after leading at halftime for the sixth time this season. Three times, the Anteaters blew leads of eight or more. Twice they were ahead by six.
Irvine has been outscored by 90 points in the second half this season.
"That's what this team must learn," point guard Raimonds Miglinieks said. "We have to learn how to keep the game in our hands when we have it. That will be important for the tournament and for next year.
"I'd say 75% of the time we have been ahead after first half."
Irvine has led at halftime 13 times, including all of its victories except two nonconference games. The Anteaters overcame a one-point halftime deficit to beat Pepperdine in the consolation game of the Iowa Hawkeye Tournament Dec. 3 and rallied from nine points back to win at University of San Diego a week later.
Are other teams making adjustments at the intermission that baffle the Anteaters?
"I don't think it's that," Miglinieks said.
Are the Anteaters less intense in the second half? Too confident? Satisfied with their first-half success?
"Everybody still tries to play hard," Miglinieks said.
Is Irvine being outcoached?
Miglinieks, a native of Riga, Latvia, is not that far removed from a stint in the Red Army and he also has been in the U.S. long enough to know freedom of speech goes only so far.
"I don't want to talk about that subject," he said, smiling. "Leave me out of that."
Women swimmers set four school records during the Big West Swimming and Diving Championships over the weekend at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach. Sophomore Gwen Yoshizumi and freshman Amerie Nordberg each had a hand in three of them. Yoshizumi finished ninth in the 100-yard backstroke, but her 58.06 was an Irvine record. Nordberg was fourth in the 100 breaststroke in a school-record 1:04.97. They teamed with freshmen Carrie Rowe and Shelly Wright for school marks in the 200 (1:50.75) and 400 (4:00.04) medley relays . . . Senior Erik Walton posted an NCAA provisional qualifying time of 45.21 with a fourth-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle. . . . Women's basketball Coach Colleen Matsuhara's advice for agile, athletic and sometimes-out-of-control freshman guard Sabrina Roberson: "Just shoot the ball like I remember you did in (Corpus Christi (Tex.) Richard King) high school. No more acrobatic, flying bricks, please."