Senior center Greg Ethington had something to prove when the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team squared off against UC Riverside.
Two nights earlier, Cal State Fullerton used an isolation play and left Ethington alone to guard one of their forwards with less than a minute to go.
Ethington gave up an six-foot bank shot and CSUF went up for good.
This time around against UCR in front of a large homecoming crowd, Ethington came up big and poured in a game-high 17 points to lead the Anteaters over the Highlanders 56-53 on Feb. 12 at the Bren Events Center, snapping a three-game skid and solidifying their hold on the seventh-place standing in the Big West Conference.
‘I thought Ethington had a heckuva game,’ said UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass.
For the first time this season, Douglass did not start junior guard Aaron Fitzgerald because of a poor game against CSUF.
The rest of the UCI (11-10, 5-8 Big West) players knew they had to work especially hard on their defense this game.
‘I thought our post players did a good job tonight with post defenses,’ Douglass said. ‘They made some good shots, but I thought our defensive intensity was the key.’
Fitzgerald came off the bench early in the first half and found his game, scoring 11 points to go with five assists. He also took a charge and his entire game was respected by his coach and teammates.
‘Sometimes [Fitzgerald’s] game has been based on his offense, but we want to see him take care of the ball, make good shot selections, play defense,’ Douglass said. ‘Those are the things you need to win big ball games. I thought we got that out of his playing time. He’s part of our future, but it has to be emphasized how he has to play.’
‘Instead of taking an attitude of ‘Oh well, they don’t want me to play,’ [Fitzgerald] just came out, played hard at both ends of the floor,’ Ethington added. ‘Maybe it worked for coach in sending that message.’
Despite starting freshman guard Davis Baker for the first time this season, Douglass dispelled any notions that he is still tinkering with his starting lineup this late in the season.
‘No, we’re not experimenting, we have our rotation down,’ Douglass said.
Despite shooting 58 percent from the field in the first half, UCR (8-14, 3-9 Big West) was only down by one point going into halftime. Douglass pointed to the Anteaters’ nine turnovers and only one free-throw attempt in the first 20 minutes of play.
‘We had too many turnovers we shouldn’t have had,’ Douglass said. ‘We got to the foul line in the second half, but we haven’t gotten to the foul line lately.’
UCR went up 38-33 at the beginning of the second half before UCI went on a 13-1 run to seal the victory. Down by three with the last possession, the Highlanders still had an opportunity to send the game into overtime, but was unable to get a shot off before time expired.
‘We did a good job of switching,’ Douglass said of the last play. ‘They had something in mind, but they kept looking for it, and time evaporated.’
‘That play was big,’ Ethington added. ‘Their guards are really quick. To get a stop there at the end, it was intense. We’ve had some close games, like against Fullerton where we played some pretty good defense, but they still got their shots off and they hit them. So it was good to get that stop and get that win.’
This victory avenges a 13-point loss on the road in Riverside last month. Although standings suggested a win was highly probable against this team, their guards gave the Anteaters trouble.
‘They were really quick and they penetrated a lot during the game, so it was hard to keep guys in front of us,’ Baker said.
UCR junior guard Steve Williams led his team with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting. UCI junior guard Ross Schraeder joined teammates Ethington and Fitzgerald in double figures in scoring with 10 points.
Although he missed all this three point attempts this night, the free throws he made to put UCI up by three with 11 seconds to go in the game were huge.
‘He didn’t make his threes, but those free throws were big,’ Douglass said.
With the win, the seventh-place Anteaters move one-and-a-half games ahead of UCR in the Big West standings, and two games ahead of Cal State Long Beach, eyeing a spot in the top eight and a trip to the conference tournament.
UCI will take on a Long Beach team, which has won two straight games, this week in a contest the team knows is important.
‘It was not a fun thing when we knew each game was do-or-die last year,’ Ethington said. ‘We don’t want to do that. We want to secure it early and give ourselves some leeway, so we can finish strong. Not that we want to lax up at all, but it’s just a better feeling.’