The UC Irvine men’s basketball team may not be deemed a team with “swagger” yet, but they certainly showed on Saturday that they have character.
For a squad that has come to be known for their late second-half collapses, the squad has put up strong performances as of late to combat that reputation.
On Saturday in front of a crowd of 2,646 at the Bren Events Center, the ‘Eaters fought back from an 18-point deficit in the last seven and half minutes to only come up short by three points in the end.
It was not because UC Davis collapsed, but because the Anteaters stepped up and came to play with the right attitude.
Led by Notre Dame transfer Joe Harden, Davis played the first half as if they were a team on another level. At one point, they seemed to be dunking on every play with ease. Dominic Calegari and the Aggies made basketball look easy, and the Anteaters made them look like they were Duke University.
An alley-oop dunk by Harden dashed the hopes of the impressive crowd and of those who followed via the national television broadcast.
The ‘Eaters simply looked flat. Davis shot 57.7 percent from the field in the first half to an abysmal 28 percent by UCI. The halftime horn put a whole new meaning to the phrase “saved by the bell.”
The deflated crowd had a deflated feeling, watching the teams repeat the same back-and-forth play in the second half. However, we did see the Anteaters rally against the University of Oregon earlier this season, and it could happen again. The Anteaters could not shoot much worse than they did in the first half.
While this optimism can only be found in a die-hard fan, it is also integral for a trailing team. And Coach Pat Douglass must have said something right because the Anteaters came out shooting.
The ‘Eaters shot an impressive 51.3 percent from the field in the second half, and 42.9 percent from three-point range. However as they turned things around offensively, their defensive game could not contain the Aggies. For every UCI point, Davis had an answer. The tank of hope was running extremely low.
The Fox Sports Net commentators seemed to have been talking about the NFL and Mark Sanchez for the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Fortunately, the UCI players kept their heads in the game.
“Coach brought us in the huddle and asked ‘Do you want to play or not?’ We wanted to show the great crowd that we were the Irvine Anteaters and that we were coming to play,” said Patrick Rembert.
And they did.
With seven and a half minutes remaining, the trio of Rembert, Michael Hunter and Brett Lauer caught fire. With Eric Wise continuing to pound the paint, it was only a matter of time before the perimeter game opened up. The trio combined for 10 of the Anteaters’ 11 three-pointers, with Lauer and Hunter accounting for four each.
Hunter, who has been shooting well everywhere but the Bren, finally found his stroke in the final seven minutes. He is considered the best shooter in practice for the Anteaters and it is extremely encouraging to see him finally have some success at home.
Rembert has the ability to hit the three-ball, and he hit two huge ones late in the stretch. However, he has developed a solid penetrating game, and with the loss of Darren Moore for the season, the importance of his ability is amplified.
Lauer has been shooting three pointers at 48.6 percent this season. He can drill a three almost every other attempt — guaranteed. That is incredible at any level.
When those three are all feeling it, it is scary. And it was.
Not only were all three feeling it on the offensive end, they each locked down on defense, and their press caused Davis a plethora of problems.
“We started to play basketball,” Lauer said.
The only thing that kept the Aggies in the game was their free-throw shooting, in which they rank among the top in the nation. The Aggies made 19 of 21 free throw attempts, reaching 90.5 percent.
The tenacious defense of the Anteaters had the Aggies in a daze and in a scare. The Anteaters had become a completely different team: a team with aggression, a team with belief, a team with heart.
“No question. We knew we could come back at halftime. All we needed was bad half [from Davis], we saw it against Pacific,” Hunter said.
Hunter was referring to the UCI victory over the University of the Pacific at home on Thursday. The Anteaters built a 30-15 halftime lead, but held on for the 52-51 victory. Again, they did not let the win slip away.
Although Rembert’s final shot came up short with five seconds left in regulation on Saturday afternoon, he had a career night with 17 points and seven assists. All of his points came in the second half. He played the biggest when Coach Douglass played the wise strategy of going for two-point shots, instead of three-pointers, to pin the pressure on the Aggies’ free-throw shooting.
Even with their stellar free-throw shooting, the Aggies watched their 18-point lead fade to three.
The UCI squad deserves the label as the team that won’t go away, and as the team that is just getting better.
I asked Rembert to forget about the final shot, and comment about the game.
“I think it was a great comeback,” Rembert said. “It showed he had a lot of heart. At halftime, we came together as a group and decided we were going to give it our all. We put the first half behind us. We were not going to quit.”
Although the Anteaters didn’t win on the scoreboard, it was a win that will pay dividends for the rest of the season. Where there is a will, there is a way.