Nikki Tom, left, scored nine points in the Anteaters’ loss to UCLA. (Courtesy UC Irvine Athletics)

The UC Irvine basketball team put up a fight but was unable to hold off a late UCLA run in a 61-48 loss in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, Friday eve­ning at Pauley Pavilion.

The Anteaters (21-12) never quit, battling back from two double-digit deficits. After trailing by 11 late in the third quarter, Kayla Williams took over, scoring five straight points, in­cluding a half-court buzzer beater, to make it 46-40 heading into the fourth.

Williams then started the final pe­riod with her third triple of the game to close within three. The Bruins (15-12) would go back on top by seven, but a Naomi Hunt three-pointer made it 52-48 with 3:50 remaining. That was the closest the ’Eaters would get, however, as the home team closed on a 9-0 run.

“The best thing we can take away from this is the battle that we had,” said head coach Tamara Inoue. “We could have folded a couple times when they went up by 10, but we did a good job of coming back. The last three minutes of that fourth quarter was back doors and them pounding inside, and it just didn’t go our way, missing shots on the other end.

“This postseason experience was something we definitely needed. For us, it’s about getting experience and competing. I know we can compete and play with the best. I’m just re­ally proud of our effort today. Cori (Close) does a great job and UCLA was a bubble team this year so I thought playing a team like this was a great match-up for us and we were excited for it.”

Williams led UCI with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Hunt added 11 points, and Nikki Tom finished with nine points and four boards. Sophia Locandro also pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.

The ’Eaters shot 32.7% from the field, 36.8% from three-point range and were 5-of-6 at the free throw line, while UCLA was 40.7% overall, 40% from beyond the arc and 87.5% (7-8) at the charity stripe.

Natalie Chou led the Bruins with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting (5-7 3FG), and IImar’I Thomas added 13 points and 12 rebounds. The Ant­eaters held UCLA’s leading scorer, Charisma Osborne, to six points. It was only the third time this season she did not reach double figures.

UC Irvine struck first and went up 5-2 on a Williams three-pointer at the 6:37 mark. UCLA eventually tied it up before taking its first lead of the night at 9-7 with 4:32 remaining. It went back-and-forth down the stretch with the Bruins holding a narrow 14-13 edge at the end of the first quarter.

Hunt scored the first five points of the second period to give the Anteaters a four-point advantage and force an early UCLA timeout. The Bruins responded out of the short break, going on a 14-0 run to pull ahead, 28-18 with 3:43 to go. Tom then ended a six-minute scor­ing drought for the ’Eaters with a driving layup, and Hunt knocked down her second three with four seconds on the clock to cut the deficit to 28-23 at the half.

Williams started the third quarter with a layup to close the gap to three before Chou knocked down back-to-back triples for the Bruins. UCI answered with a Locandro three-pointer and an and-one from Tom to make it 36-33 with 4:37 to play. UCLA then used a 10-2 spurt to go up, 46-35, but Williams scored the final five points, including a half-court shot at the buzzer to bring UC Irvine back within six (46-40).

Williams kept the momentum in the fourth with her third three of the night starting the scoring. The Bruins came back with a couple layups for a 50-43 cushion, but the Anteaters were able to keep it close and brought it to within four on a Hunt three with just under four minutes to go. UCLA then made one final push, closing out the game on a 9-0 run for the 61-48 victory.

UC Irvine finishes one of the best seasons in program history at 21-12. It was UCI’s fourth 20-win season, while the 21 victories tied a school record. This was also the ’Eaters’ first WNIT bid. Their previous postseason appearances came in 1995 (NCAA) and 2018 (Women’s Basketball In­vitational).

Courtesy UC Irvine Athletics

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