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Irvine's Athleticism Overwhelms Seattle's Pressure To Extend Winning Streak To Six

UC Irvine forward Mikah Maly-Karros didn't make a jumper outside of the key in leading the Anteaters to a 69-55 win over the Seattle University Redhawks last night at the Connolly Center in Seattle.

And despite appearing to have the type of athleticism and frame to play the perimeter, she really didn't need to on her way to a sixth double-double of the season with a team-high 20 points and 12 rebounds. 

In the first half, she established position on whoever was guarding her and just pulled up for turnaround jumper after turnaround jumper from the middle of the key. When Seattle U's defense applied more pressure in the second half and Maly-Karros was playing in the high post more often, she still made her presence felt by crashing the offensive boards - on one of the three shots she missed, she simply got the offensive rebound and got a second chance layup out of it. 

The only immediately evident answer during the game: Bonvicini yelling repeatedly to go at her after she picked up her second foul with the Redhawks down by seven points with eight minutes left in the first half. But Maly-Karros never ended up getting called for that third foul and the Redhawks never got any closer after that point.

Irvine Statistical MVP: Maly-Karros' game-highs in scoring and rebounding

As important as her dominant scoring performance was throughout the game, her rebounding was equally important, particularly in the second half.

Seattle U established a 13-2 offensive rebounding advantage (54%-15%) in the first half, primarily by being quicker to loose balls and gang rebounding as they had done against Idaho. However, in the second half Maly-Karros was more aggressive getting to defensive rebounds and helped significantly to turn the rebounding battle in their favor (13-9). She had 5 of her 8 defensive rebounds in the second half and finished the game having tracked down 30% of the defensive rebounds available to her.

"She's hard - she's very physical, very versatile," said Bonvicini when asked about defending Maly-Karros. "I didn't like the second shots - she was able to rebound and put it back in. But we forced her into seven turnovers, but she's a good player."

And her 33% turnover ratio - 3 of her 7 turnovers coming consecutively in the second half - should not diminish what she did as the team's go-to scorer, finishing the game shooting 9-for-12 from the field for a game-high true shooting percentage of 72.67%. And her scoring efficiency was a huge part of why the Anteaters were able to establish their 18 point halftime lead.

Key statistic: Irvine shot 60.7% from the field in the first half

With Maly-Karros leading the way in the paint and Seattle U turning the ball over 17 times (nearly 44% of their possessions) leading to 22 UCI first half points off turnovers, it's not too hard to understand how the UCI ended up shooting so well in the first half.

Meanwhile, Seattle U's turnover problem never really allowed them to get into a rhythm offensively and they ended up shooting 26.7% from the field. It's difficult to beat any opponent when getting outshot by nearly 35%, especially if you're giving the ball back to them for easy layups in transition.

"We gotta score more points," said Bonvicini. "The other day we're 9-for-20 from the three, today 1-for-18 because they didn't really give us enough time to really get a shot off. That's something we gotta do in practice is taking extra shots and really picking up speed so that you're ready to shoot."

And effective field goal percentages (field goal percentage weighted for the additional value of three point shots) aren't even worth discussing this game - the two teams shot a combined 2-29 from beyond the arc. A large part of the absence of three point shots in the game was that Irvine matched Seattle U's swarming defensive pressure, trapping in the half court when not pressing full court. The difference was that Irvine's perimeter players were quicker to the ball and just bigger which created problems for Seattle U when trying to execute their offense.

"Turnovers just killed us," said Bonvicini. "We really could never get into rhythm and it was the tale of the game."

Key player: Jazmyne White's defensive pressure

White's team-high 4 steals were a major part of the Anteaters' effectiveness defensively and when she wasn't stealing the ball, she was wreaking havoc otherwise.

And she seemed to revel in every single moment of intimidating Seattle ballhandlers into a panic state.

At 5'9" she had two inches on most the Redhawks 5'7" primary ball handlers (Daidra Brown and Elle Kerfoot) and when White came over to trap with her arms up and shouting "dead" she seemed to loom even larger over her opponents. With 12:49 left in the second half, 6'1" Redhawks center Tatiana Heck thought she had an open jumper from the free throw line on a fast break, but White recovered to get a clean block on the shot as Heck was finishing her shooting motion.

By no means was she just going through the motions of a trapping defense and Redhawks ballhandlers felt every moment of it from her and her teammates.

"I told our guards - point guards particularly - that when you're a point guard, your team reflects you," said Bonvicini. "So it's really important that you show poise and you show confidence and you take care of the ball. And I just thought that we could have done a better job there."

Offensively, White didn't have a huge impact scoring and with Maly-Karros and forward Kiara Belen (16 points on 7-14 shooting) shouldering most of the scoring load, she didn't have to. But White was also a major contributor to the Anteaters' rebounding turnaround getting all 5 of her offensive rebounds in the second half and finishing with a team-high 15.1% offensive rebounding percentage.

Between the pressure defense, Maly-Karros' efficient scoring performance, and Belen's relentless drives from the wing to the rim, the Redhawks were simply overwhelmed by a combination of athleticism and a team that just played their style better than they did.

"You gotta give credit to them - they're a really good team," said Bonvicini. "They're smart, they're much more athletic than they were a year ago. And I just don't think we adjusted here."

However, Redhawks players have described their team's identity as one of just working hard on multiple occasions and this game was no different - Bonvicini kept coaching to the end and her team responded and kept playing to the end.

Seattle U statistical MVP: Ashley Ward and her poise under pressure

It was clear that the Redhawks didn't play the way Bonvicini had discussed during halftime - after giving up four offensive rebounds in the first two possessions of the second half, Bonvicini pulled her starting lineup. It might seem like an odd move for someone coaching a team still in Division I infancy, but it's one more sign that as the team improves Bonvicini only raises her expectations.

And Ashley Ward responded.

"I think we just try to make sure we find a person and box out and make sure we keep our energy up," said Ward, who had 3 of her 4 offensive rebounds in the second half. "If you continue to play hard, good things are going to happen. So I think that's what we focused on - focus on playing together."

Ward has shown excellent instincts in her 14 minutes per game this season and with her teammates coming out flat and not handling the pressure well her poise stood out even if she was only 2-for-6 from the field. But her ability to find driving lanes is what helped her to an outstanding free throw rate for seven trips to the line tying for a game-high 11 points.

"Ashley's very good at reading defenses and getting to the basket," said Bonvicini. "I think she's just very versatile."

Of course the fact that she tied for that game-high with fellow freshman Sylvia Shephard is telling - the Redhawks got a huge performance from their bench last night which outscored the Anteaters' bench 29-13 in the game. Depth is not necessarily something you'd expect from a team transitioning to Division I, especially with freshmen leading the way.

Seattle showing improvement even in a loss

"Both of them went in and I was really pleased because I see the things I saw when I recruited them," said Bonvicini referring to Shephard and Ward. "I think as a freshman at times it's hard because you're frustrated, you want to play, and it's just the game's different. And I think now they're learning more of how to play the college game. And part of it's been spending a little extra time doing some things outside practice but this will be good - they're going to end up being very good players for us.

And having freshmen stepping up against a more athletic and physical team than they beat on Saturday in Idaho, the emergence of two freshmen on one night is an encouraging sign as they now have a little extra time to focus on basketball with the semester over. And in a strange twist, the increased intensity in practice over the last week - focusing on implementing their pressure defense and thus playing against it - is part of what might have prepared the freshmen to have a better game.

"I think it really helped us because in practice we were intense and this team was really good at pressuring," said Ward. "In practice we got used to pressure so when we play a team that pressures us it's not so much of a shock to us and we can handle it and work harder."

So even during a game in which the score looks lopsided and the starters were benched for a stretch in the second half (until reserves were benched one by one for not rebounding either), the thing that makes Seattle U basketball most exciting to watch stood out: they never quit - even if they had lapses of judgment - and there has been constant improvement game-to-game independent of the final score or opponent.

"One of the things for us compared to a year ago is I think we're a lot better, but I think a lot of the teams we're playing are better," said Bonvicini. "And so there are some things we have to improve on and one of those is execution offensively and taking care of the ball."

Related links:

Preview of Seattle vs. Irvine