IRVINE — Day by day, inch by pain-staking inch, the UC Irvine women's basketball team has fought hard to improve and forget stretches of frustration and futility. Its reward was six wins in its first eight games of 2012 to move within a whisper of first place in the Big West Conference.
But with conference-leading Cal State Northridge in its house on Saturday, the second-place Anteaters literally failed to measure up.
The Matadors (14-9, 8-2 in conference), who start a front line that is 6-foot-3 and 6-2, as well as a 6-0 guard, used their superior size to produce an 80-59 triumph.
UCI, with a pair of 5-11 forwards to go with 6-2 wing-turned-defensive-post Jacquelyn Marshall, tried to front the Northridge bigs. It then tried to wrap a zone around them. UCI also tried to play behind the front-court players and collapse double-teaming defenders when they caught entry passes. In the end, nothing worked for more than a flash.
The Anteaters (10-13, 6-4) erased a 17-4 deficit to pull even, 29-29, thanks largely to 19 first-half points from senior guard Kassandra McCalister. UCI even took a 36-34 lead with 3:25 left in the first half.
But the visitors, coached by former UCI men's player Jason Flowers, finished the first half on an 11-3 run to take a 45-39 intermission lead.
Northridge then weathered an early UCI flurry to open the second half and used a 15-1 run to build a 62-45 advantage.
Yet another run, a 12-2 spurt late in the second half, helped accentuate the fact that UCI, even with its vast determination, effort and Coach Molly Goodenbour's bench acumen, is still a way from ascending to the top of the conference.
McCalister, who Goodenbour said was often the team's only offensive option, finished with 27 points, two shy of her career high. She netted nine of 16 field-goal attempts, including five of seven from three-point range. She also shared the team rebounding lead with seven and had two assists, one blocked shot and one steal to go with five turnovers.
Marshall had 12 points and seven boards and just one of UCI's 25 turnovers.
Northridge was led by 6-3 senior center Jasmine Erving, who had 36 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Erving, who has 11 double-doubles this season and 24 for her career, made 16 of 22 shots from the field, including her only three-point try. She was 10 for 12 from the field after halftime to help produce the most points (80) allowed by UCI in 15 games.
"Erving had a fantastic night and there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it," said Goodenbour, who said the Matadors' height advantage was only part of the problem.
"I thought we were atrocious, offensively, with our decision-making, ball movement and spacing. It's going to be an issue for us and we continue to try to solve it."
Moving ahead is the next matter at hand for UCI, which plays four of its final six conference games on the road.
"Of course we're frustrated, because everybody wants to win," McCalister said. "Northridge is a great team and [Erving] did a great job tonight … But tomorrow is a new day and we just have to get back in the gym and work on our next game. We're familiar with working hard and one thing we're not going to do is quit."
Goodenbour agreed with her senior team leader.
"We have a really tough road trip coming up," Goodenbour said. "If we worry too much about what we did here tonight, we run the risk of spending too much time worrying about what could have been."
Northridge shot 51.5% from the field (34 for 66), while UCI made 18 of 50 field-goal tries (36%).