As a junior, Jen Tsurumoto was UC Irvine's second-leading scorer. UCI ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS

As a junior, Jen Tsurumoto was UC Irvine’s second-leading scorer.
UCI ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Small, yet standing tall in major college basketball, Jen Tsurumoto has UC Irvine on pace for the program’s first winning season in more than a decade.

The former Santa Rosa Junior College All-California and Empire Player of the Year at Analy leads Irvine in scoring with 16.2 points per game through 17 games. The Anteaters already have matched last year’s win total and continue defying expectations in the Big West Conference.

“It definitely has been a really good season so far. We’re definitely on track to be successful, which is kind of nice,” she said.

Picked to finish eighth in the Big West, the Anteaters are in the thick of the race through the first quarter of conference play.

A big reason for Irvine’s surprising start has been Tsurumoto’s improved scoring and steady leadership. Her scoring average ranks fifth in the conference and she’s recording almost four assists per game. She’s provided a spark for a program not known for being a basketball power. Irvine’s last winning season was the 2002-03 campaign.

“It’s a good thing to be the underdog. You have nothing to lose every game,” Tsurumoto said.

The senior point guard improves with every game. Tsurumoto has put up 31- and 30-point efforts in recent conference contests. Tsurumoto leads Irvine in 3-pointers made. The no-fear style familiar to Empire fans gets her to the free-throw line where Tsurumoto is ranked fifth in the Big West for free-throw percentage.

“Working on shooting and getting open has really helped me a lot,” she said.

Irvine pushes the pace on offense, matching well with Tsurumoto’s strengths as a fast and decisive player.

Fitness is another Tsurumoto hallmark, helping her anchor a defense that presses and traps across the court much of the game.

“Being in shape has been a key,” she said.

Always a confident player, Tsurumoto knew she could compete in NCAA Division I college basketball after playing with the best in California’s junior college ranks.

“Going to state every year and being in that kind of atmosphere definitely helped,” she said. “That’s how every game is in Division I — intense.”

Tsurumoto has been a starter and captain since arriving from SRJC, where she helped lead the Bear Cubs to a California Community College Athletic Association title.

Irvine is coming off a season that had the Anteaters playing very well in stretches. As a junior, Tsurumoto was second in scoring for Irvine and led the Anteaters in assists.

Entering this season, Irvine was a veteran team with seven seniors. Big West rivals might not have figured Irvine would compete for the conference championship, but Tsurumoto and her teammates were poised for a memorable campaign.

“I want to win, so I was looking forward to a good season,” Tsurumoto said.

Making the NCAA Tournament would cap a brilliant high school and college career.

“We’re definitely trying to make a run for it,” she said. “I don’t think people were expecting this.”

A good shooting guard, she could play professionally, given a good opportunity.

If not basketball, Tsurumoto is prepared for life off the court.

She’ll graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. One pursuit could be teaching. Tsurumoto has always wanted to help others, particularly after volunteering with Global Student Embassy in Tanzania after finishing high school.

Playing college basketball at the highest level made Tsurumoto appreciate her educational opportunities even more.

“This is pretty much what I hoped for since I was young,” she said.