November 7, 2015

Preseason game #2: Highlanders 85 – Lancers 75

In case you were unaware, the UC Riverside women’s basketball team is projected to finish second in the Big West conference based upon the coach’s preseason poll. And, thus far, they’ve done nothing to suggest these expectations should be lowered.

Coming off a decisive 86-51 victory in their first exhibition matchup of the year against Cal Poly Pomona, the Highlanders faced a tougher test Saturday evening in their second and final matchup of the preseason against cross-city rivals, Cal Baptist University.

The game became a tale of two halves as the Highlanders got off to a slow start in what was an incredibly back-and-forth game early on. Perhaps part of the team’s struggle to get into a rhythm was due to the foul-laden affair that became of the first half as the Highlanders (18) and Lancers (11) combined for a whopping 29 attempts from the charity stripe in the first two quarters.

This played directly into the Lancers’ game plan early on as the team’s backcourt — led by guard Kamille Diaz — managed to get attack inside the painted area during their halfcourt sets and swing the ball to the perimeter for an open three-point opportunity, which they managed to convert on five times throughout the first half.

Meanwhile, the Highlanders struggled to find similar success from outside, converting on zero of their four three point attempts in the half. With the outside shot not falling, the blue and gold looked to use the size and athleticism of Rejane Verin and Annelise Ito to their advantage, continually dumping the ball in the low post for high-percentage opportunities.

This contrasting play style between the two teams led to a highly entertaining matchup and the scoreboard would attest as much with a first half score of 37-36, Lancers.

The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy seemed to be the creed for the Lancers come second half as their offensive sets found little to no variation from that of the first. However, unfortunately for CBU, the Highlanders came out firing in the second with a clear intention to push the pace. And this proved effective as UCR found themselves ahead, 42-37 just over a minute into the third period.

The Highlanders attack didn’t stop there, as each player continued to show unrelenting energy on both ends, turning steals into fastbreak conversions and running halfcourt sets to near perfection throughout the third quarter. Come the third’s end, the Highlanders almost matched their first half total, outscoring the Lancers, 32-17 and found themselves ahead 68-54.

This momentum carried itself into the fourth quarter, where the Highlanders got the 85-75 win with little resistance from the Lancers and a few highlight defensive plays from the likes of guards Michele Curry and Brittany Crain and forwards Verin and Ito.

The win was an encouraging all-around effort for the blue and gold, with Verin putting up the most versatile line of the night with six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and six steals all alongside her game-high 25 points on 10-18 shooting from the field.

Even more encouraging is the fact the Highlanders were able to show such a level of dominance even despite the lack of statistical contribution from last season’s Big West Player of the Year in Crain, who only managed six points on a paltry 1-10 from the field — her lone make being a wide-open three pointer in the waning seconds of the game.

As it seems, head coach John Margaritis and staff hone a fair amount of depth this season and thus far players such as Verin and Curry both displayed an ability to change the course of a game due to their two-way ability and all around energy on the floor.

Indeed it is very early in the year, but this team has the makings of a potentially dangerous one in the Big West conference this season. The Highlanders will get their first true test to prove as much this Friday, November 13 at 4 p.m. PT as they open the season at home against Fresno State.