Excitement rises at UCI

UC Irvine senior Jade Smith-Williams is part of the Anteaters' resurgence this season.
UC Irvine senior Jade Smith-Williams is part of the Anteaters’ resurgence this season.
(KENT TREPTOW, Daily Pilot)

Molly Goodenbour is not good with giddy. And, frankly, despite a five-game winning streak and the UC Irvine women’s basketball program’s best start since 2002-03 in this, her third season as coach, it’s a little soon to start planning any parades.

But, more than the end, it’s the means that have Anteaters’ observers glowing about the team that continues to emerge from the former Stanford All-American’s bench.

And it was hard not to spot the beginnings of a gleam in Goodenbour’s eyes after a 53-point second half propelled the ‘Eaters to a 75-61 nonconference triumph over visiting Portland State Saturday afternoon at the Bren Events Center.

“It’s exciting,” Goodenbour said with her typical deadpan delivery after her team improved to 4-0 at home while upping its record to 5-3.

The positives include standout returners junior post Mikah Maly-Karros, senior point guard Jade Smith-Williams, immensely improved junior Kiara Belen and explosive sophomore Jazmyne White, last year’s Big West Conference Freshman of the Year.

But ample credit is also deserving for transfers Jacquelyn Marshall (a freshman from the University of San Diego) and Cassandra McCalister (a junior from Oregon State).

Oregon State transfer Tayler Champion, a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward, is expected to become eligible for the team’s road trip to Washington that begins Monday. And Kim Barnes, a 6-4 senior center, was in uniform Saturday for the first time in nearly a year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Maly-Karros, who led the Big West in scoring (20.5 per game) and rebounding (11.1) last season, when she had 13 double-doubles in 22 games after transferring from Loyola Marymount, has five double-doubles this season, No. 4 in the country. She is averaging 19.1 points and 10.5 boards, but last year’s first-team all-conference honoree no longer faces the nightly burden of carrying her teammates on her shoulders.

Smith-Williams’ leadership, at the point and at the forefront of Goodenbour’s relentless drive for success, is as valuable as her noteworthy statistical contribution.

After averaging 20 points and four assists in three wins last week, to collect Big West Player of the Week honors, Smith-Williams, who followed Goodenbour to Irvine from Chico State, is averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 assists and has made 87.5% of her free throws (42 of 48) this season.

Belen (9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) has become an energetic weapon on both ends of the floor after being relatively transparent her first two campaigns.

And White (7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest) has elevated her play in every facet while personifying the ehanced athleticism with which Goodenbour has made over a program that came into this season with seven straight losing campaigns in which it did not record double-digit wins.

“It feels really good to finally be winning,” Smith-Williams said after Saturday’s victory. “There’s excitement not only in our locker room, but I think other teams now know that when they play against us, that we are a good team. I think we’re more respected now.

“We’ve always had high expectations with Molly Goodenbour as our coach,” Smith-Williams said. “She doesn’t really settle and she’s not going to settle for anything less. I think, now, we’re just able to have confidence; to know we’re able to get it done. Last year, and earlier in the season, it was kind of iffy. But now, with confidence, it has been easier for us to play like that.”

The five-game winning streak, which has included four straight double-figure victory margins after a two-point win Nov. 23 at San Diego State, is the longest since February of 2006. The last time UCI won six straight was in January, 1984, when they won seven in a row.

The ‘Eaters will have to wait to extend the streak, as they tackle finals this week, before visiting Seattle (Monday) and Eastern Washington on Dec. 15.

The break right now may or may not be a good thing.

“I’m kind of nervous, because we have been playing well for about five games,” Smith-Williams said. “I’m OK with one practice, then a game. But we have finals, so its important for us to switch gears a little bit now and focus in on the classroom.”

Goodenbour said nine days between games, especially after playing three games in six days, could be a plus.

“I think [the break] is good,” Goodenbour said. “This [three games in six days] has been a tough stretch in terms of concentration and focus. I was really proud of how we responded. But now, [the players] need to take a couple of days off and study, before we get back to practice later [this] week.”

It was a difficult season for the Orange Coast College football team, which finished 2-8, 1-4 in what was supposed to be a softer conference schedule, and has now had winning records in just two of the last 10 seasons under Coach Mike Taylor.

The Pirates, as has been the trend in recent years, were led by their defense, which wound up ranked No. 3 in the 37-school Southern California Football Assn. in rushing defense and No. 9 in total defense.

OCC was No. 1 in the SCFA in fewest first downs allowed and, in another positive, ranked No. 2 in the SCFA in least penalty yards accrued per game (59.7 yards per contest).

And while the Pirates ranked No. 11 in rushing yards per game, they were No. 34 in scoring and pass efficiency (throwing 22 interceptions), No. 36 in turnover margin (minus 13) and tied for last in sacks allowed (41).