After a 2005-06 nonconference season that left them 2-10, the Irvine women’s basketball team has dug the same hole during this year’s preseason with its 3-11 record – only this time, it’s used a different shovel.

After last year’s dismal start, the Anteaters (3-12 overall, 1-1 in the Big West) turned their season around for conference play and ended up 7-7 in the Big West. However, any chance at repeating last year’s feat should prove to be far more difficult. Whereas last season the team did not start playing well until the end of the year, the current roster has been wracked with injuries and UCI will have to rely much more heavily on its underclassmen to carry the team.

“This year is a little bit different than last year,” Head Coach Molly Tuter said. “Last year, we really didn’t come together as a team until around the time Big West play started. This year, we have injuries to three of our starters, and have had to test our inexperienced players a lot more.”

The Anteaters have lost players from every position on the court. Sophomore forward Kelly Cochran was a strong force before she was sidelined due to injury, and was second best on the team in both scoring, with 12.4 points per game, and rebounds, with 6.2 per game. Sophomore center Naomi Halman was also tearing it up down low with 9.3 points per game and averaged six rebounds a game before she left the team for personal reasons. Junior guard Christina Zdenek was averaging 8.1 points and an assist per game before she suffered an injury as well.

With such heavy losses, much of the workload has been placed on the shoulders of the duo of senior guard Angie Ned and junior forward Stephanie Duda. Last season, Ned led the Anteaters by averaging 13.0 points per game and shooting 77.1 percent from the free throw line, ranking fourth and third, respectively, in the Big West. She also led the team in three-pointers, making 1.39 a game, as well as minutes of play with 801. Her performance led to a first team All-Big West selection as well as the Big West Defensive Player of the Year. So far, this year has not been as kind to Ned, who is only shooting 34.4 percent from the field and has an abysmal 0.3 assist/turnover ratio. However, she is still second best on the team with 12.5 points per game and is nabbing just over four rebounds a game.

In contrast, Duda was relatively quiet offensively last season averaging seven points a game. However, her 6.1 rebounds per game were good enough to earn her 11th in the Big West and she was third in the conference with 3.11 offensive rebounds per game. This season, with more offensive responsibility, Duda has exploded for 12.8 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting to lead the team. Like last year, she leads the team on trips to the charity stripe by a wide margin, with her 84 attempts almost doubling Ned, who is second with 43. Duda is also leading the team in rebounds per game by a wide margin with 10.1, and her 20 steals put her on top as well.

With two of the frontcourt players out, Irvine’s guards have had to fill in with scoring duties. Two junior guards, Annie Mai and Miranda Forry, have stepped up to the challenge. Mai leads the team in assists with 42 and three-point shooting at 35.7 percent. She has a 0.9 assist/turnover ratio while averaging a steal per game and 7.5 points per game while shooting 32.1 percent from the field. Forry is averaging 6.1 points per game while scooping up 2.9 rebounds a game as well.

“We don’t have a lot experience on the bench. With those players injured, it puts a lot more pressure on the bench,” Tuter said. “We just need to get some experience under our belt; we just need to get our younger players more comfortable.”

Despite the injuries, part of the Anteater’s poor record can be attributed to their tough nonconference schedule. With losses to Fresno State (8-7), UCLA (9-9) and Arizona State (14-2), UCI has played some good teams this year. More importantly, seeing a diversity of playing styles in the nonconference season gives the team valuable experience for Big West play.

“We had a really tough preseason schedule, probably the toughest we’ve ever had,” Tuter said. “With the teams we’ve played in preseason, we’ve seen everything. We’ve been through it all. Now it’s a matter of learning from all of it.”

Kicking off Big West play, Irvine opened up the year with an 84-73 win over Cal Poly (5-10, 1-3 Big West) on Jan. 4, but is currently sitting a .500 in the Big West standings after the Anteaters fell to the red-hot Santa Barbara (7-8, 3-1 Big West) 86-67 last Saturday. Irvine then took a break from conference play and hosted Utah Valley State last night, when Irvine won/lost X-X.

Even with all of the trouble that the Anteaters have faced, Tuter said that the plan of attack is the same as it was from day one: Work hard and win championships.

“Our goal is still the Big West Championship. We’ve had to take some steps back, but we are still moving forward,” Tuter said. “We work hard. Their effort is there. Now we just need to step up and finish games.”