There are no comeback-of-the-year awards in college basketball, but one could easily make a case that some reward is due to the women’s teams at UC Irvine and Long Beach State.
After struggling on the court, UC Irvine for a few decades and Long Beach State for a few years, the programs have risen to become contenders in the Big West Conference. The Anteaters (13-8 overall, 11-4 Big West) finished second to UC Davis during the regular season and are the No. 2 seed in the nine-team, five-day conference tournament that begins Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Long Beach is 12-8 and 11-7 in league, finished third in the regular season and is the No. 3 seed in the tournament. Both teams open tourney play on Wednesday at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The Anteaters meet No. 7 seed UC Santa Barbara (7-13, 7-9) at 5 p.m.; Long Beach meets No. 6 seed Cal Poly (12-10, 8-8), at 8 p.m. Both games stream on ESPN3.
Tamara Inoue, in her fifth season as UCI’s head coach, has reversed the program’s fortunes, which had featured just one winning season since 2003. The Anteaters won 20 games in 2019 and have two straight second-place finishes, their best since 1998.
Long Beach had three straight 20-win seasons under Jody Wynn but the program went into a deep rebuilding mode after her departure for Washington. Jeff Cammon, a former assistant under Wynn, came in and struggled for two-plus years before this season’s breakthrough.
Inoue, who was a standout player at LBSU, has built a solid foundation in her five seasons. As college coaches are wont to say, the biggest factor in a turnaround is creating a program’s culture.
“This team is my first recruiting class, and that’s where the culture begins,” Inoue said. “We have four seniors who have been together from the start, who wanted to come here and believed in what we were doing.
“After our last game, I spoke to the team about how not one of them has ever been late to practice or been in academic trouble. That’s a hard thing to do. They set a standard that has allowed us to recruit dynamic players who see what we’ve done and want to be a part of it.”
Haleigh Talbert (9.6 points, 3.6 rebounds), Tahlia Garza and Dani Guglielmo are three of those seniors who were joined by Kayla Williams and Chloe Webb, who earned postseason honors Monday. Williams, a skilled guard (14.8 points) from Mater Dei, was named the Big West Player of the Year. Webb, from Bishop Montgomery, averaged 11.2 points and 7.3 rebounds and was named to the conference’s All-Defense team along with Williams.
Cammon was a Long Beach State assistant from 2008 to 2014, then an assistant on winning teams at Cal and Colorado. Last year’s team was .500 in league play, and the current team won 10 straight games this season, the program’s second-longest winning streak since the Joan Bonvicini era.
“I was involved in the rebuild the first time around (under Wynn), and Long Beach is a place where you can build and sustain a program,” he said. “But it takes a lot of work and good things have to fall in place. You look at our team now and see players who were part of the rebuild and a coaching staff that has stayed intact.”
Four juniors are the heart of the team, led by Justina King (13.7 points) and Ma’Qhi Berry, who were named to the conference All-Defense team, and Naomi Hart (12.1) and Jasmine Hardy (10.6). LBSU averages 11.4 steals per game and only 13 turnovers, both league-leading stats.
“The big part of the streak is that we were able to win even if we only had seven or eight players available, and we were plugged in enough to win some games we could have lost,” Cammon added.
If UCI and Long Beach win their quarterfinals on Wednesday, they will meet in a semifinal on Friday. They split their two-game series at UCI last weekend to conclude the regular season. UC Davis (10-2, 9-1) is the No. 1 seed.
UC Riverside (7-11, 5-9) and Cal State Fullerton (3-17, 2-14) meet in a play-in game Tuesday (noon, ESPN3) as the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the conference.
The Titans went 17-14 last season, their first winning season in almost three decades. Coach Jeff Harada was given an extension on his contract, but Big West Player of the Year Raina Perez transferred to North Carolina State and Taylor Turney chose to opt-out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. Injuries to Aimee Book (14.9 ppg) and Carolyn Gill (9 ppg) further devastated the roster.
“We ended last season with expectations that all five starters would return,” Harada said. “Now we’re down to two. But I’m proud of the way the team stuck together. Last game we had seven players plus a walk-on. You learn from things like this. I hope it will pay off in the future.”
The Highlanders started the season 1-4, won six of their next nine, then closed with four consecutive losses. UCR beat Fullerton in their two meetings. Nicole Parker is in her first season as head coach after starring at Stanford and in the WNBA. Senior Keilanie Cooper leads the team with 14.4 points per game.
2021 BIG WEST WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT
Michelob ULTRA Arena, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas (all times PT)
No. 8 UC Riverside vs. No. 9 Cal State Fullerton – Noon (ESPN3)
No. 1 UC Davis vs. No. 8/No. 9 winner – 11 a.m. (ESPN3)
No. 4 Cal State Bakersfield vs. No. 5 Hawaii – 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 2 UC Irvine vs. No. 7 UC Santa Barbara – 5 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 3 Long Beach State vs. No. 6 Cal Poly (SLO) – 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
Semifinal No. 1 – Noon (ESPN3)
Semifinal No. 2 – 3 p.m. (ESPN3)
Championship Game – 5 p.m. (ESPN3)
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