What a difference a year makes.
The UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team finished the regular season with a win over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 79-49, on March 5 at the Bren Events Center, guaranteeing the team a winning record this season and a spot in the Big West Conference tournament after failing to qualify for the event last season.
Despite low expectations coming into this season from the media and conference coaches’ preseason rankings following a disappointing 11-17 2003-2004 season, this year’s Anteaters were able to extend their record to 15-12 overall and 8-10 in the conference with a double-double performance by lone senior, center Greg Ethington, who poured in a game-high 21 points to go with 10 rebounds against Cal Poly.
Coupled with another double-double game two nights earlier against UC Santa Barbara, Ethington’s play in the latter part of the season drew praise from UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass.
‘He’s really had an exceptional second half of league play,’ Douglass said.
‘It was fun to play tonight,’ Ethington said. ‘On your last night, you want to show that you made an improvement, that your last day is better than your first day here.’
Ethington started out strong, scoring six of the team’s first eight points and eventually tallying 15 points and nine rebounds before halftime. Douglass said that he didn’t necessarily feed Ethington the ball because this was his last game at the Bren.
‘He’s usually one of the people we go to,’ Douglass said. ‘Ethington was operating well inside so we gave him the ball.’
Against a Cal Poly team (5-22, 3-15 Big West) that finished last in the conference, UCI jumped out from the opening tip and never trailed. The Anteaters went up by its largest margin of 34 points at 70-34 with 8:40 remaining in the contest.
‘We knew that they were going to shoot a lot of threes, so we knew there were going to be some long rebounds. We did a good job on the boards and played pretty good defense,’ said junior guard Ross Schraeder. ‘We got out and ran a little bit, and that’s when we’re most effective.’
The Mustangs were paced by freshman guard Dawin Whiten who scored a team-high 14 points and senior center Mike Titchenal who grabbed 11 rebounds. UCI sophomore forward Nic Campbell scored in double figures with 11 points. However, the night belonged to Ethington, who was honored by his coaches, teammates and fans after the game.
‘Ethington had a big load to carry because he was the only senior,’ Douglass said. ‘I thought he’s done a good job.’
The fifth-seeded Anteaters will now turn their focus to their first-round opponent in the conference tournament, eighth-seeded Idaho, who they will play against in the Anaheim Convention Center on March 9. UCI defeated Idaho twice this season, but the average margin of victory in those wins was only three points.
‘The last three or four years that we’ve been in the tournament, we’ve lost to teams that we’ve beat twice, so we can’t let that happen again,’ Ethington said. ‘We can’t get complacent, we can’t back down … and we have to make sure we take care of teams we know we can beat.’
In order to win the Big West Conference tournament and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, UCI must win four games in four consecutive nights. Although the task seems almost impossible, Douglass knows his team can do it.
‘We’ll see what happens,’ Douglass said. ‘It’s only one week. If you get hot, anything can happen.’