Tre’Shonti Nottingham scored 20 points and Brittany Crain added 14 points in her UCR debut, but the Highlanders fell to Gonzaga University, 60-53. The home team squandered a nine-point lead at halftime as Gonzaga shot 52 percent in the second period.
“It was a game of two halves,” Highlanders Coach John Margaritis said. “I thought we battled all the way to the end, but we need to improve.”
UC Riverside led 28-19 at intermission and 46-39 with eight minutes remaining, but Gonzaga, who owns a 5-1 head-to-head record against the Highlanders, rallied back to take the lead 51-49 behind a 10-2 run. Trailing by three in the waning moments of the game, a questionable non-call on a last second Nottingham three-point attempt deflated the Highlanders as four Bulldog free-throws sealed the victory.
“There was a series of plays throughout the game, especially down the stretch, that if we can just do a little better job with each one of them, if we can do something where they turn out positive rather than negative, we’ll be a much better team,” Margaritis said about the game’s final plays.
The first half saw the Highlanders overcome stifling defense from the opposition to take early leads in the period before a 9-3 run, including seven consecutive points from Crain, which pushed the Highlanders to a solid nine point lead at the half. Crain, who finished the night with 14 points and eight rebounds, was playing for the first time draped in blue and gold. “I was nervous,” she said. “I was thinking a lot about, ‘I don’t want to mess up.’ But once I started to play more I got used to it.” The Highlanders shot 40 percent in the first half (10-25) compared to 24 percent from Gonzaga (6-25).
UC Riverside couldn’t sustain the tide of the second half as the visiting team came out more poised and composed, making over 50 percent of their shots in the period. A Crain three-pointer stopped a 9-0 Bulldog run before sparking the Highlanders to a 46-39 advantage at the 7:50 mark. Gonzaga, who has made the NCAA tournament four consecutive years, then capitalized off of a stretch of inconsistent play winning nine of the next 10 points to take their first lead of the second half, 49-47. The two teams then traded leads before a Bulldog layup and free throw put Gonzaga up three points, 52-49. Nottingham’s layup with two minutes left closed the deficit to one, 51-52, before two fouls by the Highlanders saw the the score grow to 56-54 at the 1:38 mark. A made free-throw by Crain gave UCR an opportunity to tie the score. With 15 seconds remaining, Nottingham attempted a three-pointer but missed as an opposing player tapped her armed. No foul was called, however. The obscure non-call shattered the home team’s chance for a comeback.
Despite letting the game slip away, the team is making improvements and looks to continue on a seemingly promising opening game. “You want to be realistic about what happened, and at the same time we say, ‘Okay, this is step one,'” Margaritis stated. “If we can get better at this aspect and that aspect and that aspect, if we can play with intensity, with the mental and physical intensity that we had in the first half, if we think things through, follow the defensive plan and make some timely shots and a few free throws, we can win the game.”
When asked about what it will take to make help his team improve, Margaritis simply said, “We have to learn to win.”