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Women Are on Wild Roller-Coaster Ride

They are up, they are down. They win, they lose.

There seems to be no predicting what the UC Irvine women’s basketball team will do. That’s not always a bad thing.

The Anteaters defeated UC Santa Barbara in overtime Jan. 19, handing the Gauchos their only Big West Conference loss this season. Of course, Irvine followed that by losing to Cal State Fullerton--then 0-4 in conference play. That four-day swing illustrates the Anteaters’ pendulum.

Last week, the joy ride continued. The Anteaters lost to Long Beach State, 77-68, on Friday, blowing a halftime lead against the 49ers for the second time this season.

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Irvine came back in a big way Sunday, beating Pacific, 56-54, to remain in sole possession of second place, behind Santa Barbara, in the Western Division.

It could drive a coach nuts. But Colleen Matsuhara can see the big picture.

While the Anteaters may have some difficulties, they can be attributed to growing pains. They start a freshman back court of Megan Stafford and Shannon Anders. Two other freshmen, centers Kirsten Cappel and Chelsea Mackey, have started and play considerable minutes.

Juniors Leticia Oseguera, the team’s leading scorer, and Sabrina Roberson, the third-leading scorer, are the only experienced starters.

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“We’re such a young team, with no seniors, that they are still building their confidence,” Matsuhara said. “When Leticia gets in foul trouble, we have some problems.”

Not on Sunday. Oseguera sat out nearly half of the second half because of fouls. Irvine teetered, losing a seven-point lead, but didn’t topple.

The freshmen didn’t allow it to happen. Pacific, which trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, took a 37-36 lead five minutes into the second half. Stafford came right back and hit a jump shot.

Irvine trailed, 43-41, with 10 minutes left when Stafford and Cappel worked a perfect pick-and-roll for a layup. On the next possession, Anders sank a three-point shot to give the Anteaters a 46-43 lead.

“They responded to the challenge,” Matsuhara said.

Of the four players, Stafford has responded to it a little more often. She has had her bad moments, including the Long Beach State game on Friday. Stafford missed all nine of her shots from the field against the 49ers, though she did have a career-high 10 assists. But she put both parts of her game together against Pacific.

Stafford made five of nine shots and finished with 15 points and seven assists. She had only two turnovers.

“Long Beach was the worst game I played in my life,” said Stafford, a 5-foot-8 point guard. “But there was nothing I could do about it when it was over. I knew I could bounce back. I’m pretty confident in myself.”

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It shows. Stafford, who has started 22 of 23 games, is third in the conference in assists, averaging 5.1. She needs 17 more to break Kippie Brown’s single-season school record (133).

Stafford is second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.9 points.

“Megan can be really hard on herself,” Matsuhara said. “We’ve asked her to do so much as a freshman that it would be easy for her to get down. But what we liked when we were recruiting her was her moxie.

“She went 0 for nine against Long Beach, but had those 10 assists.”

Anders, Cappel and Mackey have not been quite as consistent, but they have been productive. Now they are being asked to make one last push.

The Anteaters, who have three games left, are 12-11 and 7-5 in conference play, 1 1/2 games in front of Fullerton, Long Beach and Pacific.

Four teams will qualify for the conference tournament. Irvine still has to play Santa Barbara and Fullerton, with last-place Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in between.

“We need two wins,” Stafford said, “and it would be nice to beat Santa Barbara again.”

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Ouch: The Anteaters shut down Pacific’s Kate McAllister, holding her to seven points, which is eight below her average. McAllister, a 6-1 center, made one of five shots.

“We had to limit the number of times she touched the ball,” Matsuhara said.

They did, but it took a little pushing and shoving to keep McAllister from getting the ball inside. Mackey fouled out, and the Anteaters’ other inside players--Oseguera, Cappel and Char-Pei Chen--each had four fouls.

“I told them we had a lot of fouls to give,” Matsuhara said. “They took me very literally.”

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Curses, foiled again: Sunday’s game was costly to Matsuhara. She was assessed a $2 fine by the team’s kangaroo court for inappropriate behavior.

Anyone who uses unsuitable language, even in the heat of battle, has to pay a buck. Stafford and Oseguera were charged a dollar each Sunday. Matsuhara got fined twice.

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Under pressure: Men’s basketball Coach Rod Baker appears to be taking his possible unemployment as well as can be expected.

When three reporters showed up at a practice last week, Baker scanned the unusually large media crowd and said, “What is this, a suicide watch?”

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Baker, actually, was torn between the prospects of the Anteaters qualifying for the conference tournament.

“For us, it’s good,” Baker said last week. “I’m not so sure it’s good for the league. Usually, I’m a big proponent for what is good for the league.”

The league is safe. After being swept by Cal State Fullerton and Utah State, Irvine’s chances of making the tournament are slim. In fact, although the Anteaters remain mathematically alive--they are three games back with four to play--they probably can make other plans for the first week in March.

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The most difficult thing track and field Coach Vince O’Boyle faces these days? Possibly car pool lanes.

With Irvine’s track/soccer stadium under construction, the Anteaters have to work out wherever space is available. The distance runners are at Irvine, while the sprinters and field event athletes work out at Rancho Santiago College. It involves coordinating two workouts for about 80 athletes.

“I don’t think everyone on the team knows each other yet,” O’Boyle said. “The Rancho Santiago people have been great, but it is still a 15-20 minute drive.

“I did find out how to get in the car-pool lane immediately when we come home. You cut across Grand Avenue and you can get right on it. It is all a matter of learning the system.”

Irvine’s stadium is expected to be ready for the conference championships in May.

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Coming Attractions

Here’s a look at key games for UC Irvine:

* Women’s basketball at UC Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. Friday and at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at 2 p.m. Sunday. Santa Barbara leads the Big West Conference’s Western Division. Irvine is second.

* Men’s basketball plays at Long Beach State at 9 p.m. Thursday and at Pacific at 7 p.m. Saturday.

* Men’s volleyball faces third-ranked Brigham Young at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matches. The Anteaters (2-5, 2-3 in conference play) defeated Loyola Marymount in three games Thursday.

* Women’s tennis hosts Cal State San Bernardino Wednesday and Southern Utah Friday. Both matches begin at 1:30 p.m.


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