UC Irvine Women's Hoops: A Resurgence In Four Acts
UC Irvine has always been a player in Big West women’s basketball. The program has some of the best players in league history and one of the most memorable Big West Tournament runs in lore back in 1995, but the program hit a rough patch as it recorded a 17-77 record from 2015-17. It made the Big West Tournament in all three seasons, however UCI competed as the #8 seed during that stretch.
So, how did a team mired in losing break the cycle and post 17 wins (and counting) this season? A coaching change, hitting on some talented new players in a roster turnover and good ol’ fashioned hard work. In their own words, UC Irvine head coach Tamara Inoue and her players recount the process from also-ran to league contender:
Act I: The Old Days
The 2015-16 season was rough. Then-head coach Doug Oliver announced he would be retiring season’s end. The Anteaters struggled all year and at the end of the regular season were in a 10-game losing skid. They were still alive for a Big West Tournament berth and a coin toss is what gave them the spot instead of Cal State Fullerton. UCI fell in the first round to UC Santa Barbara… putting an end to a difficult season. One of their top players was a freshman who didn’t even play the first half of the season.
Then a coaching change and a transfer signaled a new day was ahead.
[Andee Ritter, junior guard]: “I was a freshman and sat out the first half of the season due to injury. I would have liked to have won more games, but I was just happy to be playing during conference.”
[Tamara Inoue, head coach]: “I knew we had the trust and support from administration that my staff and I would do our very best to bring in student-athletes that fit the mission of the University, as well as buy into my philosophy on the court. We want to be a part of UCI and show our community that we can accomplish both a degree and a championship. To be able to travel the country, and even sometimes outside of the country, to bring student-athletes to Irvine that could potentially hang banners here and walk away with a degree from one of the top academic institutions in the country, was a huge thought when taking the job.”
[Sabrina Engelstad, senior forward]: “Initially, I was interested in going to a larger school with a great education where I would be very happy both on and off the court. I was talking to a few other schools when I first came in contact with the former head coach (Doug Oliver). When he announced his retirement, I was unsure about what I was going to do, but after being put in touch with Coach T, I knew UCI was the perfect choice for me. Not only is my father a former student-athlete, but Coach T and I had very good chemistry from our first conversation on the phone. She was straight forward and honest with me throughout the entire recruiting process.”
Act II: Trust the Process
Hope was in the air but hope doesn’t amount to results. The team certainly played hard but was outdone by bigger, deeper ball clubs. The 5-26 record was difficult, but a scan on the sidelines saw that brighter days were ahead. And the team could sense it. After another Tournament berth and the growing list of committed transfers and high school players, the process was underway.
[Inoue]: “It’s kind of a blur, it went by extremely fast. I was so grateful for the players that I inherited and how much they gave their best day-in and day-out. From the first game to the last game, they were always fired up and ready to play, and that is not coaching, that’s an indication of the character on the team I inherited and I’ll always remember that. As far as growth; patience is something I really took from a great mentor of mine, Coach Mark Trakh.”
[Ritter]: “We learned a lot from Coach T and made strides towards becoming a better team. I knew it would be a year of adjustment and improvement. Coach T helped us do just that.”
[Engelstad]: “We can say that my first season at UCI was interesting. It was very difficult to be on a team that wasn’t winning but I knew I had to focus on my personal game and leadership skills in order to carry that into this year. It was frustrating at times to see the amount of talent we had in our transfers waiting on the sidelines, but I would say it was more encouraging to know we were working towards something. Coach T did an excellent job coaching the young women she brought in as well as the ones she didn’t. The transfers went hard every day in practice and encouraged the girls on the team that were returning.”
The work wasn’t just on the court… it was going on off the court too., in locales all over America.
[Lauren Saiki, sophomore guard]: “I committed to UCI in the beginning of the summer. At the time, I think only Yazzy [Sa’Dullah] had committed already, but I knew that the new coaching staff would recruit hard to find the players they wanted. At the beginning of the year, they brought in a lot of recruits, and a big part of why we got so many commits was because we all trusted the vision the coaches have.”
[Jordan Sanders, freshman forward]: “I chose UC Irvine because I had previously lived here and really enjoyed the time I spent here. When I came on my visit I could just tell it was where I was supposed to be. With that feeling, and the bond I made with the coaches and the girls, I knew I couldn’t go wrong.”
[Morgan Green, junior guard]: “The main factors in my decision were Coach T’s vision/ambitions as it relates to basketball, and the omnipresent opportunities provided from the academic community at UCI.”
[Tahlia Garza, freshman forward]: “When I took my official visit here I felt at home. I loved the coaches and players and I felt UCI was a place where I could thrive not only as a player but as a person. I also loved the idea of growing with the program and being a part of history here.“
[Yazzy Sa’Dullah, sophomore guard]: “After being so far away from home during that year I spent at West Virginia, I knew I wanted to come back home to California. Then, after speaking with the coaching staff and seeing the campus, I knew this is where I wanted to be. I was also excited about the future of the program and what we could do as a team.”
[Inoue]: “They were going to be the foundation of the new era at UC Irvine, and they would have a year to help build and work side-by-side with myself to create the culture together. I didn’t expect to land so many outstanding transfers, however, Coach Cece and I really hammered the phones when we got the job to let everyone we knew know that we were looking, so I am thankful for so many coaches and friends who helped us as well.”
Season’s over… learn names on the fly and get to work. Adjustment comes secondary to work when you’re trying to build a new era.
[Sanders]: “For me it was very hard. I decided to come for the first summer session so I could work out and just get to spend some time on campus. When I got here, it was nothing like I expected. I was the only freshman amongst mostly upperclassmen so I had to figure a lot of stuff out by myself. It wasn’t anything that I hadn’t had to experience before though. The most challenging thing for me was the basketball aspect of it. I had never played at such an intense and demanding level before so that took a little time to get used to.”
[Engelstad]: “We immediately went to work when last season was over. The standards were raised much higher and Coach T expected a lot more out of us in terms of work ethic, time dedication, and overall skill level. I don’t think it was weird [having so many newcomers], because we all grew very close during the transfers’ redshirt year and we knew it was our time. This is what we were waiting for.”
[Saiki]: “We worked really hard this off season starting last spring. Our team doesn’t have competitive drama. We compete every day to make each other better.”
[Green]: “I knew [coming in with a big class] would be challenging, as building team chemistry can be rather precarious at times, however, with the experience of the coaching staff, I was confident that we would be able to build something special here.”
[Inoue]: “We spent a lot of time together in the spring with the transfers and also with the freshmen when they came in the summer. I think the beach workouts were something that helped them come together especially when Coach Justin took over and stepped up the intensity. I know every player thanks him every day for pushing them so hard!”
Summer turns to fall and practice comes around. The vision for the team and Inoue’s style of play becomes clear as the new team embarks on a new season.
[Sa’Dullah]: “At first, it was surprising only because most coaches don’t do that; they usually go about seven deep, if that. But, it’s actually one of our biggest strengths, and with pressing all game it’s good to go deep to keep fresh legs in and keep teams on their toes all game.”
[Garza]: “I think the 10-12 player rotation is great. The fact that Coach T can rotate between 10-12 players is just a true testament to the talent that each player has. During any given game a different player could go off and that is what makes our team so special. “
[Engelstad]: “Coach T does a great job of setting a serious tone in practice where we get work done and are efficient while also being able to have fun and cracking jokes. The coaches definitely balance each other out and make practice a great environment.”
[Green]: “Playing for Coach T has truly been a blessing. She, and her coaching staff, completely embraced me from the inception of my tenure at UCI. Even more, her vision of having a deep bench has been integral to our success, and initially I was ecstatic about having that depth in our 10-12 player rotation.”
[Inoue]: “With such a young team, expectations were, and still are, day-to-day. I expect to see individual improvement every day, and for us to learn from game situations and not let the same mistakes happen again. I had always wanted to play 10-12 every game because with such a young team I believe you have to try your best as a coach to give everyone a chance and to gain some experience.”
ACT III: No Excuses, Just Produce
An athlete hones their craft in practice but in the end, that’s all it is… practice. Season-openers always carry hope. UC Irvine had the hope of an entire offseason of team building on its side. They had the power of the unknown. That all seemed like a lip service when the Anteaters found themselves down 13 to Utah State with 2:38 to go.
Hey, no problem right? This isn’t the same UC Irvine. A 16-4 run and the game is all tied up at 84. Then something crazy happened courtesy of junior forward Deijah Banks…
[Ritter]: “I saw that shot go up and when it bounced in it brought a euphoric reaction not only from our team but all the fans as well. That win set the bar high for the rest of the season.”
[Saiki]: “Going into that game, I was so anxious to finally play. No one knew what to expect from us but everyone was excited to play. When that shot dropped, I was so hyped, I was on an adrenaline high all night. There was no better way to start off our season and it just gave us so much excitement moving forward.”
[Sanders]: “When Deijah hit the buzzer beater I had a sudden realization that we were something special.”
[Engelstad]: “It was amazing. I knew it was going in as soon as Yazzy got the steal and passed it up to her. I was the first person off the bench to run to her and lift her up. Deijah is a great teammate and proves how clutch she is time and time again. After that, we knew that we were on the map and people were going to have to keep their eyes open for UCI.”
[Inoue]: “It was a pretty special moment because of it making ESPN’s TOP PLAY throughout the night and lasting to the next morning. We got a lot of texts and phone calls and I think you live in the moment and take it all in. I was lucky enough to have my twin sister make the trip and watch the game in the stands which is something that means the world to me. She was at a loss for words after the game, it was just such a special moment.”
The Anteaters battled their way to an 8-6 non-conference record. Already surpassing their win total from last season was exciting enough, but the final piece of the puzzle was ready to be unleashed. Junior guard Morgan Green was eligible… and she was ready to be unleashed on the Big West.
[Green]: “Clearly there’s a bit of a learning curve, but after playing basketball for so long, and studying the game meticulously in my free time, I have enough exposure to adjust quickly to expectations, concepts, etc. It was extremely difficult [not playing], because I love playing this sport with all of my heart. Nevertheless, sitting out was an excellent opportunity for me to better understand my teammates’ tendencies on the basketball court.”
[Sa’Dullah]: “Morgan becoming eligible definitely changed the dynamics of our team. We were already so diverse in skill as a team, but when she was finally able to play it just elevated us so much - especially on offense because it’s very hard for teams to guard us. No matter who is on the floor, all five can score so it’s sort of a pick your poison type of deal. Playing with someone like Morgan is very fun because of the energy and intensity she brings to the game.”
[Garza]: “Morgan is a special player, a kind of player you do not come across often. She is a high intensity player who really sped up our game. She upped our intensity on defense especially, and never let us drop. Her leadership qualities continue to emerge each game as she never hesitates to pull you aside and give you advice.”
[Sanders]: “Once Morgan became eligible, I think it added some experience to our team since she has played at a very high level. She has also brought the next level of energy that we really needed.”
[Inoue]: “As a staff and team, we knew adding Morgan Green was going to make our team better. When I say I better, she lifts the intensity and doesn’t ever settle. Morgan is one of the best players I have come across not because of her talent (which is huge), but because she doesn’t have an off switch when she steps on the floor in practice. Moving forward, Morgan will continue to elevate our team; she will be that scoring point guard that will step up when we need her, but that will also continue to involve everyone because we do have a lot of talent.”
Let’s check to see what the team has accomplished this season:
- 13-game (and counting) improvement from last year.
- Double-digit wins for the first time in four years.
- Three wins shy of the first 20-win season since 1984-95.
- School record two 100-point games.
- Best record through 25 games (17-8) since 1984-85.
Basketball seems fun in Eaterland.
[Saiki]: “I am so thankful for the opportunity Coach T has given me to play at this level and I’m having fun playing in front of my friends and family.”
[Engelstad]: “Our team is extremely close, which I think is rare and difficult to accomplish especially in the women’s game. Our chemistry off the court definitely transfers onto the court. We are still peaking and getting better every day, which is very important for a young team, and I look forward to seeing how much damage we can do for the rest of conference and into postseason.”
[Ritter]: “Winning is great and I love to win games, but the best part of our team and coaching staff is how everyone supports each other.”
[Sa’Dullah]: “Playing for Coach T has been a good experience for me. My biggest thing when I was looking to transfer was having a good relationship with my coach and she definitely has given me that which I’m grateful for. And, basketball-wise it’s just fun playing for her. We get after it on both ends and the energy is always flowing, it’s a great environment.”
ACT IV: The Next Step
The final act hasn’t been written yet. It hasn’t even started yet. Tournament time is the final step for this squad – rebuilt, hungry, yearning for more. That memorable Tournament run? The only title in program history. There are challenges still to overcome.
[Sanders]: “I hope to keep building better chemistry with my teammates and coaches, and obviously to keep winning and make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
[Engelstad]: “I expect nothing less of being Big West Champions, and as for the tournament, everyone loves an underdog!”
[Green]: “I hope that we play with fearlessness and resilience, so that we may leave everything out there on the hardwood and bring a championship home to Irvine.”
[Sa’Dullah]: “I hope to finish out the season by winning the rest of our games and being number one in the conference. I want to win the tournament and collect some rings.”
[Saiki]: “We have to keep taking care of business the rest of conference play. We have to stay focused on one game at a time. Our goal from the beginning has been winning the Big West Conference and going to the big dance.”
[Ritter]: “Right now we are just taking it one game at a time. My hopes are that we continue to get better and stay healthy.”
[Garza]: “My hopes for the rest of the season are that we continue to grow as a team and showcase our talents and abilities on the court. The goal is to win conference and to get to the NCAA Tournament. I am looking forward to continuing to shock everyone with our success.”
[Inoue]: “The hope is to win it all. The expectation is to take it one day at a time, continue to get better and put together a 40-minute game.”
Catch the conclusion of Act IV next week at the Big West Tournament.