An early season five-game winning streak was halted with demoralizing losses against UCSB and Cal State Northridge in Big West Conference play. The last thing the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team needed was to compete against defending conference champion Pacific in their next match-up.
With only a minute left in the game, junior guard Aaron Fitzgerald ran around a screen set by senior center Greg Ethington and nailed a 16-foot jumper, putting Irvine up 64-62. It appeared as if an upset was in the making.
But Pacific was not about to give up just yet.
The Tigers crawled back and tied the game at 65 apiece and with only 3.9 seconds left, Pacific’s senior center Guillaume Yango found himself open and drilled a 10-foot jumper to hand the Anteaters another tough loss, 67-65, on Jan. 8 at the Bren Events Center.
The loss extends the Anteaters’ (6-5, 1-3 Big West) losing streak to three games. Although disappointed with this defeat, UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass thought the team played its best game overall against one of the Big West’s best.
‘It’s a tough loss, that’s the way league play is. … We had some nice shots that didn’t go in,’ Douglass said. ‘I was proud of my guys. That was probably the best we’ve played for 40 minutes as far as staying within our offense. [Pacific] just had a lot of weapons.’
Freshman forward Darren Fells added, ‘We had a real good game. Everybody played together, and it was a real team effort.’
For Douglass, this close loss was not as hard to swallow as the one two evenings earlier against Cal State Northridge. In that game, the Anteaters led by as much as 11 points in the second half before falling apart and losing by 14.
‘I think it’s harder to bounce back from [the loss to Northridge], we didn’t play well in the second half,’ Douglass said. ‘Northridge took it to us. … We should be more worried about bouncing back from playing bad on Thursday than this game.’
UCI had one last scoring opportunity before the final buzzer sounded. With less than four seconds left, Fitzgerald received a pass from junior guard Ross Schraeder after crossing the half court line and shot the ball from about 35 feet out.
Unfortunately, the ball went a few inches too far, hit the back of the rim and came out.
‘The shot was straight,’ Fitzgerald said. ‘I thought that was in.’
The Anteaters used a 18-6 run at the beginning of the game to jump out to an early nine point lead. However, Pacific (10-2, 5-0 Big West) came back into the game and took a narrow three-point lead into halftime.
UCI finally caught up and tied Pacific in the second half with five minutes to go in regulation when Fitzgerald hit a desperation three-pointer from 24 feet out as the shot clock expired.
Fitzgerald led the Anteaters down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final eight minutes of the game. He had a game-high 19 points and added six rebounds and four steals.
However, Douglass was most impressed with his playmaking skills than his scoring.
‘[Fitzgerald] ran the club better, as in when they should fast break, when should they run the offense, it was good to see,’ Douglass said.
Ethington described the team’s tactics during the second half as, ‘All we wanted to do was get the ball moving around. [Fitzgerald] was able to get freed up by screens.’
Schraeder scored 13 points in the contest while Fells collected 10 rebounds to go with eight points.
Junior guard Johnny Gray and junior forward Christian Maraker both led the Tigers in scoring with 14 points apiece.
The Anteaters’ Achilles heel in this game was their free throw shooting, going only 5-for-11 the entire game. Despite another setback, the team looks to take the lessons learned from these last few games and win on the road as they take on UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton this week.
‘I’ve said all along that we have seven new guys and we have one senior, we’re trying to learn to play, each week we’re trying to do our best,’ Douglass said. ‘But I think we took another step in the development in our club.’