March 22, 2024 

Deja Lee’s career year helps power UC Irvine to NCAA Tournament

The junior guard turned in a career season for the Anteaters.

1995 was the last time the UC Irvine Anteaters made it to the NCAA Tournament. The current iteration of the Anteaters had their chances in recent seasons. They made it to the Big West Tournament championship game in both 2021 and 2022, but just couldn’t break through. It may not be a coincidence that the season they finally broke through was the same season that Deja Lee put up a career year.

The junior guard has steadily been improving each year she’s been at UC Irvine, but this year was different. She averaged double-digits in scoring for the first time (13.9) and was named the Big West Player of the Year. It was the first time in school history that an Anteater was awarded the conference’s top individual honor.

After being named a Big West Honorable Mention last season, Lee was expected to make an All-Conference team this season. But she shattered those expectations, helping lead the Anteaters to a top-two finish in the conference standings.

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Lee puts the team above herself

For Lee, winning the conference’s top award isn’t so much a statement about herself individually. Rather, it’s a testament to the culture that’s being built at UC Irvine.

“I think it’s pretty sentimental just knowing that I was able to bring that to the school and just what it means for our school community,” Lee told The Next. “It’s a lot bigger, I think than the award itself. It’s the history-making part and just knowing how big that is for our program and just what attention that will garner, in terms of not only the individual accolades, but what that means in terms of our team culture and things like that. It feels really nice to carry. I’m blessed and grateful that I was given that award.”

A big part of that culture being cultivated at UC Irvine comes from head coach Tamara Inoue. This is Inoue’s seventh season at the helm, and she’s posted a winning record in all but two seasons. One of those two seasons was the cancelled COVID-19 year.

Over the past few seasons, UC Irvine has consistently been picked to finish near the top of the conference in the annual Big West preseason coaches poll. Inoue is a players’ coach, one who empowers them on the court and trusts them to make the right plays especially her guards.

Lee credits Inoue’s system in terms of helping her make the strides in her game that she has this season.

“She lets her guards have quite a bit of freedom. Just being able to play under her, and just learning from even the other guards like Diaba [Konate] and things like that has really helped me in terms of how I play,” Lee said. “Just getting to understand Coach T’s style of play, she likes to play fast. That’s something that I’ve been really lucky to experience, just using my athleticism to really help our team.”

Inoue has traditionally had strong guard play on her rosters, and Lee is the latest embodiment of that. Along with fellow junior guard Diaba Konate, the pair make up arguably the best backcourt in the conference.

Both players are capable of scoring the ball while locking up the opposing backcourt. The Big West named Konate the Defensive Player of the Year, while Lee set a school record for most steals in a single season. The pair’s swarming defense was critical in shutting down UC Davis in the Big West championship game. They won by pressuring the ball in the backcourt and using quick hands to force turnovers in the half-court.

Lee believes the defensive end is the backbone of this program. She relishes each opportunity she gets to play alongside Diaba.

“One of our identity pieces is just that, our defense brings our offense. Just knowing that our defense is one of our anchors and then being able to play with Diaba, watch her get steals, it gives me energy,” Lee said. “It gets us fired up and gets us going, especially for us on the first line in our full-court press. When she’s rocking, doing her thing out there, I got to support my girl.”

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Lee has grown into the player she is today

When Lee first arrived at UC Irvine as a freshman during the 2021-22 season, she played sparingly, averaging only 8.7 minutes per game off the bench. Her role increased in her sophomore year. She started in 20 of the 32 games she played in, with her numbers increasing across the board. Lee’s play was a key factor in the Anteaters’ ability to advance past the first round of the WNIT in 2023.

But this has been her breakout year. In addition to averaging double-digits in scoring, she shot 43.7 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from the three-point line. And during the Big West championship game, Lee came out on fire from the get-go. She buried UC Davis with an array of jumpers and moves to the basket.

Lee finished with 21 points and six rebounds while shooting 8-12 from the field and 2-4 from three-point range. She earned another top honor — the Big West Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Her on-court progression is noticeable, but it’s her confidence that Lee believes has grown the most.

“I think that just coming in as a freshman, just a completely new environment, being new to college basketball in general is very scary at first. And so just trusting the preparation that you’ve done basically your entire career and just knowing that the work that you put in won’t fail you is something that I’ve carried through the last couple of years,” Lee said. “I think the area I’ve grown the most is my ability to shoot. I’ve been working on that a lot for the past couple of years and just getting on the court and having that confidence in the training I’ve done has been really big for me.”

Becoming a leader, on and off the field

Lee has also expanded her leadership role this season, particularly in terms of being more vocal. This year’s Anteater roster is full of upperclassmen, with only two true freshmen on the team. Lee made sense as a team later, as one of the Anteaters’ lead guards and primary ball-handlers. But, it’s a role that, for someone a little more soft-spoken, has taken a bit of an adjustment period. UC Irvine has been better off for it, though.

“I’m introverted for sure, so it does take quite a bit of stepping outside my comfort zone to be super loud and energetic,” Lee said. “But I’ve kind of taken on the role of just giving my teammates a little nudge when they need it. Just knowing that I’m always there for them, just letting them know that they can talk to me, is just something that I’ve kind of taken on.”

The Anteaters open up the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Washington against a Gonzaga Bulldogs team that finished the regular season at 30-3 and ranked 16th in the nation. This group has been knocking on the door for a couple of seasons now. Per Lee, Winning the Big West Tournament and making an NCAA Tournament appearance was a team objective all season.

“It’s something that we worked so hard for, just from last season and all the injuries we had to endure, we overcame so many obstacles in that aspect,” Lee said. “Just working on our weaknesses from last season and bringing things together, it’s just such a good feeling just knowing how hard we worked for this. I think our biggest mentality going into the semifinal game and the final game of the [Big West] tournament was just that no one deserves it more than we do given everything we’ve gone through and how hard we needed to work. I’m glad that we pulled it through.”

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David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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