Six Notes on Undefeated ’Eaters After Saturday’s Season Opener.
Team Mom Saves the Day: In the first half of Saturday night’s 78-64 win for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team over the University of Nevada, freshman center Conor Clifford entered the game to a large ovation from his Middle Earth dormmates in a decent Antourage crowd (1,561 in attendance). Two free throws, a missed right-handed hookshot, three fouls and four minutes later, Clifford was sitting on the bench in need of medical attention.
Luckily, Elizabeth Turner, the wife of UCI Coach Russell Turner, was in attendance. An errant elbow from a Nevada defender left Clifford with his tooth penetrating through his lip. There was Elizabeth, a surgeon at the UC Irvine Medical Center, to stitch the seven-foot freshman up.
“I told her to give him a scar to make him look tough,” Russell said, laughing after his team’s 14-point win.
Clifford wasn’t back on the bench until midway through the second half, so Turner kept his center with a bandaged chin on the bench until there were 30 seconds left on the clock in what could be referred to as basketball’s victory formation.
Free throws “ain’t” always free: The Anteaters shot just 23 of 36 from the free throw line, and late in the second half, UCI hit a stretch of six straight missed free throws. Were you afraid that you were losing it at the line, coach?
“I ain’t got fear,” Turner said. “We didn’t make them all, but we made enough [free throws].”
In the second half, senior center Adam Folker missed all four of his free throw attempts. With less than a minute to go, Folker rebounded a Nevada miss and wisely dished it to freshman point guard Alex Young, a better free throw shooter, immediately. As Young hit midcourt, he lobbed a pass to a wide-open Will Davis, who slammed a rim-rocking dunk, one day after turning 20 years old.
Davis had eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a performance that impressed Coach Turner, who stated, “When he’s in the game, [the other team] is looking for him, when he’s out of the game, they’re looking for him. He looked a lot older tonight, and I was impressed with how focused he was on the game plan.”
Speaking of the game plan: There were two things the Anteaters had to do in order to halt a seven game losing streak against Nevada: out-rebound the Wolf Pack and contain point guard Deonte Burton.
UCI totaled 51 rebounds to Nevada’s 37, led by senior forward Mike Wilder’s 11 boards, while Folker secured nine, including a team-high six offensive rebounds. With professional scouts on hand to watch Burton, the reigning Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, the Anteaters stymied Nevada’s star. Burton shot just 2-8 from the field, totaling eight points and two rebounds. The Nevada guard, Turner and Starring admitted, was their focus in film study last week; it paid off, as Burton committed three turnovers and was a nonfactor as a result of Irvine’s suffocating defense.
“Defensively, we’re ahead of where we were in the Big West Tournament last year,” Turner said after the game. “Daman [Starring], Flo [Derick Flowers] and the rest of our perimeter players really took on the challenge of guarding those players.”
Turner went on to say that he was impressed with Davis’ ability to alter shots on the interior and keep Burton out of the paint.
Shooting Starring: At shooting guard, Starring played well on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense Saturday evening. Starring shot 7-15 from the field and got to the free throw line five times, nailing all 10 of his free throws. He ended the night with a career-high 25 points, along with seven rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes of action.
But a side note to Starring’s prolific night was the work done on the interior by the big men. Nevada closed to within 10 points with five minutes remaining in the game when Starring took the ball at the top of the key. As he worked the ball to the left wing, Folker maneuvered his body around his man in the key, boxing Nevada’s big men out and clearing a wide open lane for Starring to lay in his 22nd and 23rd points of the night. It’s those little things that make all the difference, and let’s just say the Anteaters are doing those little things right, from committing just eight turnovers to creating 21 second-chance opportunities on offense.
Young is money: Freshman Alex Young is beyond his years, playing with nerves of steel against a tough Nevada zone press defense. The point guard played 21 minutes, five more than starting guard Derick Flowers, scoring 12 points, grabbing four rebounds and committing just one turnover.
“Alex Young was really good and really poised tonight,” Turner said.
Young handled Nevada’s full court zone without panicking, which can’t be said about sophomore Aaron Wright, who continues to struggle. Wright played just six minutes and looked shaky with the ball in his hands. After passing on an open three midway through the first half, Wright let the ball slip out of his hands, leading to an easy fast break for Nevada, and closing the gap to 27-23. Turner pulled Wright immediately for Flowers, and Wright sat on the bench until the game was in hand in the final minute of the game. Wright had just four points combined in the Nevada opener and the Vanguard exhibition the week prior, all coming off of free throws from intentional fouls. If Wright doesn’t start taking advantage of his playing time and holding onto the ball, he might be sitting next to sophomore Travis Souza in mop-up duty.
Inside the Numbers: Nevada shot 45 percent from the field last season, but shot just 35 percent against the Anteaters Saturday night. The win for Irvine is just its sixth out of 19 career games against Nevada, and the first in 15 years. Limiting Nevada to 64 points was crucial, as the Wolf Pack was 10-5 last season when scoring less than 70 points, compared to 18-2 when scoring more than 70 points. UCI has now won 113 of 160 games, or 71 percent, at the Bren Events Center since the turn of the century, a healthy dose of home court advantage.
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