It's a strange and wonderful feeling for Coach Colleen Matsuhara and the UC Irvine women's basketball team. To the last woman, they swear they have never taken the court expecting to lose, but this kind of confidence is new and exciting.
The Anteaters are seeded third in the Big West Conference tournament, which begins today at the Thomas & Mack Center. After managing only five conference victories in three seasons, Irvine rolled up a 12-6 Big West record this year, beating every team except Pacific at least once along the way.
And the Anteaters are crunch-time battle hardened. Four of those conference victories were by four or fewer points and two other times they won in overtime.
"We've had our share of close ones and hopefully the way we dealt with those pressure situations will help," Matsuhara said. "And I don't think we've reached our peak yet.
"Consistency is what it's all about now. You can't play well one day and shoot yourself in the foot the next. You have to show up for three straight days."
Cal State Fullerton, led by Koko Lahanas, the No. 1 scorer in the nation with a 27.1 point average, plays San Jose State in tonight's opener, followed by Nevada and Hawaii as the four lowest-seeded teams face off for the right to join the other six in Wednesday's quarterfinals.
"The way (Lahanas) scores is not spectacular," said Mark French, coach of second-seeded UC Santa Barbara, "but she's as tough to defend as any post player I've ever coached against. Maybe you could designate three or four players to huddle around her, and there were two occasions this year that I contemplated that, but their system makes it very difficult."
Top-seeded New Mexico State is led by last season's conference player of the year, Anita Maxwell, who is a contender for the honor again this year with averages of 26 points and 10 rebounds. But even the Aggies lost four conference games, so there is no clear-cut favorite.
"You just can't look at one team and say, 'They should win,' " Long Beach State Coach Glenn McDonald said. "You never know how well you're going to shoot the ball and that's a real key, of course. And who takes best care of the ball, that will be very important, too. But this tournament is up for grabs to anybody who is really focused on winning."
The Anteaters, who committed 30 turnovers Jan. 26 when they lost to Long Beach in the Bren Center, open tournament play at 3 p.m. Wednesday against the sixth-seeded 49ers. Long Beach, a team that was 7-2 on the road and 2-7 at home in the Pyramid, is led by forward Melissa Gower, who scored 76 points in her last two games and is averaging 23.8 points and a conference-leading 13.3 rebounds.
New Mexico State brings a 19-9 record into the tournament, Santa Barbara is 17-8 and Irvine is 16-10, but French says no team can count on a berth in the NCAA tournament unless it wins it all this week in Las Vegas.
"I think most of us suffer from an extreme fear of 'Hawaii Syndrome,' " he said.
In 1993, Hawaii lost in the final of the Big West tournament to finish the season 28-4. The Rainbows did not receive an at-large NCAA berth.
Big West Notes
Seventh-seeded Cal State Fullerton opens tournament play at 6 tonight against No. 10 San Jose State. Nevada, seeded eighth, meets No. 9 Hawaii in the nightcap. Wednesday, UC Santa Barbara faces the winner of the Fullerton-San Jose game at 12:30 p.m.; UC Irvine meets Long Beach State at 3 p.m.; New Mexico State plays the winner of the Nevada-Hawaii game at 6, and No. 4 Pacific meets No. 5 Nevada Las Vegas in the nightcap. Semifinal games begin at 6 p.m. Thursday and the championship is set for 1 p.m. Friday.