In a game hyped up for the return of former teammate Mike Efevberha, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team’s performance against Cal State Northridge almost went unnoticed last Friday.
After going cold in the last 10 minutes of the first half, the Anteaters found a way to fight back and defeated the Matadors, 76-62, in front of 2,038 at the Bren Events Center on Jan. 13.
The win snapped a four-game skid against CSUN. The win also extended the Anteaters’ winning streak to three games, before which UCI (7-8, 3-0 Big West) lost seven of eight contests.
UCI went up by 15 points early in the first half, only to score four more points the last 11 minutes of the half. Northridge (6-7, 1-2) closed the half with a 14-0 run to trail by three going into halftime. Although the UCI team of a few weeks ago may have let this game slip away, senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald and sophomore center Darren Fells made sure it wasn’t going to happen.
Tied 47-47 with 10 minutes to go, Fells converted a three-point play and, on the ensuing sequence, grabbed a rebound and hit a bank shot to put the Anteaters up by five. Fitzgerald broke down the Matadors’ defense by driving for several critical layups.
‘Fells picked it up the last five minutes, even though he struggled the first half of the game,’ said Head Coach Pat Douglass. ‘I think by far that’s the best game Fitzgerald played, both on defense and offense.’
Senior guard Ross Schraeder led four Anteaters in double figures, scoring a game-high 17 points. Fitzgerald was close behind with 16 points and nine assists. Junior center Thomas Shewmake led CSUN with 14 points.
‘We had to go out harder,’ Douglass added. ‘We lost four or five close games, and we just got outworked. Tonight, I was pleased because we lost momentum and we regained it. You have to fight to get the momentum back.’
‘We played well for the first 10 minutes, then we had a few turnovers,’ Schraeder said. ‘Maybe it just got into our heads a little bit, and affected our confidence.’
The team credits their defense for sparking their second-half barrage. After being held to only 24 points in the first half, UCI rallied for 52 in the second half, shooting over 60 percent from the field in the last 20 minutes.
CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell credited Fitzgerald for defeating his team.
‘What hurt us was Fitzgerald putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim, and we didn’t step up and stop him,’ Braswell said. ‘UCI hit some big shots.’
However, Irvine’s impressive performance was eclipsed by the presence of Efevberha, CSUN’s junior guard who leads the conference in scoring with over 22 points a game.
Two years ago, Efevberha was poised to follow Jerry Green and Jordan Harris as UCI’s next standout guard. However, he was suspended in the final games of the 2003-2004 season and eventually dismissed for what the team called a violation ‘of team and department rules.’ In the hunt for a berth in the conference tournament, and right before big games against Utah State and Long Beach State, onlookers wondered why Efevberha wasn’t in the lineup.
News would soon shed light on Efevberha’s violation: petty theft. He stole a backpack from a female student, pleaded guilty to petty theft, paid a nominal fine and performed community service. Fans in the Bren were ready to welcome Efevberha back to UCI with chants and signs reminding him of a past he would rather forget.
Although it appeared that Efevberha screamed at the Completely Insane Anteaters’ section after hitting a three-point shot from the top of the arc in the second half, he said, ‘I tuned everybody out. I only heard the crowd scream when UCI made baskets.’
‘My adrenaline was so high … I wanted this win bad,’ Efevberha added. ‘But most of my shots were contested. I should have had better shot selection.’
Douglass put Fitzgerald on Efevberha to force him to score over a quicker defender. Douglass also sometimes brought another defender or two to help out. His plan worked. Efevberha scored only 10 points on 4 of 15 shooting.
‘I thought Fitzgerald’s defense on Efevberha was good. You don’t stop Efevberha, he can get his shot, but I thought we at least frustrated him,’ Douglass said.
Nonetheless, the Anteaters were more pleased with how they’re developing as a team.
‘It gives credit to Fells and [junior forward Nic] Campbell who battle every night, rebounding. I think when they rebound and play with defensive intensity, it gets everyone else going,’ Fitzgerald said.
‘This is a big step for us,’ Douglass added. ‘I think that we’re gaining more of an identity.’