After a disappointing 2006-07 season that saw the UC Irvine women’s basketball team go 6-24, Molly Tuter’s Anteaters; are looking at more of the same in 2007-08. The squad finished nonconference play with a 4-10 record, and has yet to get a victory against a Big West team, amassing a 0-3 record thus far. The Anteaters are riding a nine-game losing streak, and are looking to turn that around in time for the Big West tournament.

Luckily for UC Irvine, if a Big West team can catch fire late season and win the conference tournament, it will be guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. What this means is that no team is out of the running, not even the bottom-dwelling Anteaters. Head Coach Molly Tuter is entering her fourth season at the helm of the Anteaters, and she’s confident that a fast-paced style can keep the Anteaters in the Big West hunt.

“We are going to be a well rounded team that is focused on defense and will run the fast break,” Tuter said. “We want to cause havoc defensively and get lots of shots up on the offensive end.”

The task facing the Anteaters is a tall one, and Irvine will have to count on some leadership from its veterans to achieve its goals. One such veteran is senior forward Stephanie Duda, who currently leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging a double-double every game. Last year she was the eighth leading rebounder in the country, and her current pace is a stellar 10.1 rebounds a game. Duda also leads the team in steals with 20, an unusual category for a post player. However, her weakness lies in her propensity to turn the ball over, with a paltry assist to turnover ratio of 1:2.75. If the Anteaters are going to come back and make a run this year, Duda has to take better care of the ball.

The only other Anteater averaging double-figures in points is sophomore forward Kelly Cochran. At 11.1 points per game, she is the team’s second-leading scorer, in addition to being second in rebounds. Cochran really makes her mark on defense, with more blocks this season than the rest of the starters combined. The combination of Duda and Cochran down low will play a pivotal part in Irvine’s success this season.

Rounding out the starting five are senior forward Miranda Forry, junior guard Kirian Ishizaki and sophomore guard Rebecca Maessen. The three of them are less gifted scorers than Duda and Cochran, but all do have their respective strengths. Forry is arguably the most reliable three-point shooter on the team, hitting almost 36 percent of her shots from beyond the arc this season. Maessen has quick hands, and has the second-most steals on the team at 18, behind Duda. Ishizaki could play an important role this season, as she is the only Anteater currently boasting a positive assist to turnover ratio. If she can keep finding open players, Irvine may start seeing more success and win a few more conference games.

UC Irvine also has a fair amount of depth, with 11 players averaging over ten minutes per game. Some of the key contributors off of the bench are senior forward Haley Tull, senior guard Christina Zdenek and freshman center Kim Barnes. Tull is the team’s highest percentage shooter, at 52 percent from the field on the season. Zdenek has the highest three-point percentage on the team at 41 percent, albeit on a limited number of attempts. Barnes could be an important piece of the puzzle for this Anteater squad. She towers over other players at 6 foot 4 inches, and the New Zealand native has four years ahead of her to mature as a player. Currently, though, she is Irvine’s best free-throw shooter at 15-16 on the season – an unusual statistic for a center. Her progression as a dominating inside player will be very important for Irvine’s future over the coming years.

After the disappointing nonconference season, things have not gotten any better for the Anteaters in the first few weeks of Big West action. Despite 14 points and 13 rebounds from Cochran, UCI dropped its league opener 69-66 to Cal State Fullerton. The Anteaters followed that up with 76-63 loss at Santa Barbara on Jan. 10, and a blowout loss to Cal Poly two days later. The 92-55 loss to the Mustangs was the second worse loss of the year for the Anteaters, who have lost many of their games this season by narrow margins.

“We’ve lost so many close games this year, we start out a little bit on our heels, sometimes,” Tuter said. “We’ve just got to attack from the get-go.”

Irvine will now head north to Pacific and UC Davis in search of their first conference victory, and first victory of 2008 period. While this team is off to a rough start, the future appears to be bright. With young stars emerging in Cochran and Barnes, the Anteaters’ post presence in the coming years could become one of the more dominant forces in the Big West. For now though, the Anteaters will have to hope that the pieces come together quickly, ideally in time for a Big West Tournament run.