IRVINE — Growing pains or just excruciatingly painful losses?
UC Irvine women's basketball coach Molly Goodenbour said it may be too soon to tell Saturday, after the Anteaters dropped their second crucial Big West Conference game in three days to fall from a tie for first place into a three-way tie for third.
Visiting Cal Poly San Luis Obispo maintained sole possession of first place by rallying from an eight-point second-half deficit to claim a 72-70 triumph and improve to 9-7, 5-0 in conference in front of a season-best home crowd of 1,575 at the Bren Events Center.
UCI (11-5, 3-1), which entered the week 7-0 at home and ranked No. 23 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, overcame a 44-39 halftime deficit to claim a 56-48 advantage with 11 minutes left.
Junior Mikah Maly-Karros, who had a season-low nine points and seven rebounds in Thursday's 69-58 loss to UC Santa Barbara, had a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds against the Mustangs. She had 18 points in the first half and produced four during a 14-1 UCI run that created the eight-point cushion midway through the second half.
After a 13-1 Cal Poly run put the visitors up, 62-59, Maly-Karros sank a three-pointer to knot the score. But Cal Poly, led by 24 points and six three-pointers from senior Rachel Clancy, pulled ahead, 70-64, and held off a late charge.
A Maly-Karros layup drew UCI within 70-68 with 1:03 left and, after two free throws by the Mustangs, Jade Smith-Williams made a layup to cut the UCI deficit to 72-70 with 35 seconds remaining.
UCI forced a 35-second shot-clock violation on Cal Poly's ensuing possession and took the ball out of bounds from the Cal Poly baseline with four seconds left.
Kassandra McCalister's three-quarter-court football pass sailed over Maly-Karros and was tipped by two Cal Poly defenders near the UCI free-throw line. UCI junior Kiara Belen beat a Mustang to the loose ball and the collision sent Belen to the line with 3.4 seconds remaining.
Belen missed the first of the one-and-one situation, but the rebound went out of bounds to UCI. The 'Eaters, who had no timeouts, managed to inbound and get an open 17-footer from the right wing by McCalister. But the shot caromed off the rim at the buzzer.
"I really felt like these were two games we could have won if we played the way we are capable of playing," Goodenbour said. "I didn't feel like we did that, at least for two halves in either game … I liked the way we played real hard in the second half. Cal Poly is a very good team, a scrappy team. They can shoot it and they don't make a lot of mistakes. We need to step up again and do what we're capable of doing."
UCI posted an advantage in nearly every statistical category, except at the free-throw and three-point line. UCI shot 42.9% from the field to 40.7% for the visitors. UCI held a 36-35 edge in rebounding and had 10 turnovers, four fewer than the Mustangs. But Cal Poly made 20 of 22 foul shots, while UCI converted nine of 13. And Cal Poly was eight for 14 from beyond the arc (57.1%), while UCI was seven of 22 for 31.8%.
"Irvine is a tremendously talented team and they work their butts off," said Cal Poly Coach Faith Mimnaugh, who had only eight players in uniform due to a string of injuries that included a season-ending torn ACL in the opener by senior Kristina Santiago, last year's Big West Player of the Year. "This was one of those dog fights. It was blue-collar against blue-collar.
"We've had a lot of adversity, but we've stayed together. I never would have tought we would be 5-0 [in conference] at this point."
The Anteaters visit Long Beach State on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Big West Conference
Cal Poly SLO 72, UC Irvine 70
CPSLO – Bloetscher 16, Clancy 24, Reeves 15, Johnston 7, Griffin 6, Wells 4.
3-pt. goals – Clancy 6, Johnston 2.
Fouled out – Griffin.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Maly-Karros 28, Marshall 8, White 7, Belen 3, Smith-Williams 14, McCalister 5, Meggs 3, Champion 2.
3-pt. goals – Smith-Williams 2, Maly-Karros 2, Marshall 2, Meggs 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – CPSLO, 44-39.