A month ago, UC Irvine Coach Colleen Matsuhara took her team to the Bren Center to witness a photo shoot. The "model" was the Big West tournament trophy, the picture for the cover of the tournament program.
"Tamera Thomas has a comment for every occasion," Matsuhara said, "and I remember her saying, 'They might as well just leave it here for us.' "
Thomas had all the answers Saturday and the Anteaters will indeed be taking the trophy back to Irvine. Thomas made seven of nine free throws in the final 1 minute 35 seconds and Irvine beat the University of the Pacific, 65-53, to win the Big West tournament championship in front of 741 in the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Anteaters (19-10) will find out who they play in their first NCAA tournament appearance this morning when the pairings are announced.
Irvine shot only 25% in the first half and still had a one-point lead because of a scrambling man-to-man defense that had Pacific (20-12) hurrying its shots. The Tigers also committed 13 first-half turnovers.
The Anteaters put together a 13-5 run midway through the second half--a stretch that included two key blocks by tournament most valuable player Allah-mi Basheer and two follow shots by senior Jinelle Williams--and led, 45-37, with 5:22 to play.
Then the Tigers were forced to foul, when they could catch Thomas, who was dribbling in circles Harlem Globetrotter-style. On one occasion, Pacific's Sandy Hoge was forced to tackle Thomas, resulting in an intentional foul, two points on Thomas free throws and possession of the ball back to the Anteaters.
Irvine clinched the championship with clutch free-throw shooting, connecting on 18 of 23 in the final 4:45.
"I have confidence in my ballhanding, so I wasn't worried about them taking it away," said Thomas, who led Irvine with 17 points and made only two turnovers. "I'm the point guard, the leader, and that's my role to keep the ball in my hands and keep the game in control."
Neither team seemed interested in taking control in the first half. The Anteaters made two field goals in the last 13 1/2 minutes before the intermission. And they missed eight shots, many layups or close-in shots, during one five-minute drought. Still, they led, 21-20, at the half.
"We were ready to kill each other," said Williams, looking at Basheer and laughing. "But we were really confident and relaxed."
Basheer and Williams, who was named to the all-tournament team, rebounded from sub-par first-half performances. Williams finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Basheer had 11 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Senior Cher Scanlon made two of four three-pointers and scored 12 points.
It has been a long, uphill climb for the Anteaters, who gained the confidence to rebound from three horrible seasons during this tournament last year when they lost to top-seeded Hawaii by three points in the second round.
"That game was the foundation," Matsuhara said. "We didn't want to regress. Our goal last summer was to start this season off from that point and keep going."
The Anteaters won their first five Big West games were 12-6 in the regular season, setting a school mark for conference victories.
"Three years ago, we won three games all year with mostly the same players," Matsuhara said. "This team has come down a long road, but they got here by playing together, pulling for each other and trying to help each other improve every day in practice."