The Anteaters have already secured second place in regular-season standings and a bye into the semifinals of the tourney with a win over UC Riverside last Wednesday. With two weeks left in their regular season, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team doesn’t seem to have much reason to play hard—that is, besides staying sharp and getting ready for the Big West Conference tournament.
But that was until a close call against Drake University on Saturday night.
If UCI wants to beat Pacific and the rest of the Big West to get into the NCAA tournament, they have to fix their one weakness: breaking the full-court press.
Allowing a full-court press to yet again let another team back into a game that should have been in the bag, UCI narrowly beat Drake 70-67 in a nonconference matchup at the Bren Events Center on Feb. 18 in front of 1,410.
The Anteaters led the Bulldogs by as much as 18 points at 53-35 on a three-point jump shot by senior guard Ross Schraeder, capping off a 15-4 run to start the second half. But, like the game on the road against Long Beach State earlier this season, the full-court press bothered the team.
‘They’re known for their press. We handled the zone press but when they went to the man press, we didn’t handle it as well,’ said UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass. ‘We only had 10 turnovers. Against a pressing team, that’s not too many. I think that sometimes when a turnover results in a score, it looks a lot worse.’
Schraeder wasn’t too worried about their play.
‘We’ve been there before,’ Schraeder said. ‘We just have to work on handling the press a little better in the last 10 minutes of the game.’
Drake twice came within one point of Irvine within the last three minutes of the game. UCI was able to hold on by going to the free-throw line and knocking them down. Senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald scored the last five points for the Anteaters, all from the charity stripe. With such a big lead, Douglass admitted it is difficult to maintain the rhythm.
‘It’s kind of hard when you get a lead and you’re just holding on to win,’ Douglas said. ‘We didn’t wilt and we made our free throws. We got a couple of stops down the stretch.’
Their last defensive stop was perhaps UCI’s biggest. Coming out of a timeout with five seconds left, Drake took the ball down the court and a Bulldog guard penetrated the lane before dishing the ball out to sophomore forward Brent Heemskerk. His three-point shot at the buzzer, that would have tied the game, didn’t even draw iron.
Besides the press, the game was a morale booster, particularly for Schraeder and junior forward Nic Campbell. Both sharpshooters have been off lately, but found their touch again. Campbell had a game-high 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, while Schraeder poured in 18 on 5-of-9 shooting, 4-of-5 from three-point land.
‘They’ve not shot as well in the last six or eight games, so it’s good to see them making their shots,’ Douglass said of Campbell and Schraeder. ‘They’ve had shots, and I think they were tired. I think this will be good for their confidence.’
‘It’s nice getting in the flow again,’ Schraeder said. ‘We both got some good looks out there.’
Fitzgerald was the third Anteater in double figures with 11 points and seven assists. Sophomore forward Patrick Sanders and sophomore center Darren Fells both grabbed eight rebounds apiece. Drake sophomore guard Chris Bryant led the Bulldogs with a team-high 11 points, keeping his team in the game in the first half with a couple of three-pointers.
UCI (15-11) hosted Drake (12-16), located in Des Moines, Iowa and of the Missouri Valley Conference as part of the BracketBusters weekend, where the NCAA pairs up over 100 mid-major schools to compete and give them exposure to other teams and regions where they would not normally play. Besides exposing themselves to the weakness they need to work on, this nonconference game did not have much more meaning.
‘It’s another win out there, you can always use that,’ Schrader said. ‘We’re getting a little momentum going into our last games.’
Douglass noted, ‘That’s our 15th win, so I know we’re going to have a winning season.’
While most teams will play four games over the next two weeks, this year’s schedule will have the Anteaters playing only two more: this week at UC Davis and next week at home against Long Beach State. Disappointed with the luck of the season schedule, Douglass hopes that it won’t affect the team.
‘It’s a plus and a negative,’ Douglass said. ‘We’ll have some time off, but then it may take a little bit off of our conditioning.’
Campbell is more optimistic.
‘I don’t think it will affect us too much,’ Campbell said. ‘I think it will help us, if anything. It’s a long season, legs are starting to get a little tired so we’ll be fresh for the Big West tournament.’
Even though their spot in the semifinals is secure, the team is going to approach their last two like any other contest.
‘It’s not going to affect the way we play the rest of the season,’ Campbell said. ‘We’re still playing to win.’