As much as they would like to shrug it off, with eight conference games left, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team will have to play with the pressure of being targeted by the rest of the Big West Conference.
Led again with an impressive performance by senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald, who scored a game-high 28 points, and help from senior guard Shamar Armstrong, Irvine fought back from a late second-half deficit to beat Cal State Fullerton on the road 67-59 in front of 1,423 at Titan Gym.
The win keeps UCI (10-8, 6-0 Big West) undefeated in conference play and gives them an early command in the race for the conference regular-season crown. The six-game conference win streak also matches the school’s best start since the 2001-2002 season.
The Anteaters went on a 25-3 run in the second half to go up 56-41 and seal the victory. The second-half run compensated for the team’s poor play in the first half, during which they only shot 31 percent from the field.
‘We were struggling offensively in the first 15 minutes or so of the first half, so to stay close and only be down one at the half, I thought, was key for us,’ said Head Coach Pat Douglass. ‘To come on the road and beat a talented team like Fullerton, it’s a gutsy win for us.’
UCI maintained its composure as CSUF (9-7, 3-4) built a 38-31 lead with 15 minutes to go, but came back after Armstrong hit a difficult and well-defended three-point shot, stole the ball from the Titans on the ensuing play and dished out an assist on the fast break. After Fitzgerald completed a three-point play to tie the game at 39-39, Armstrong had another steal and took it to the rack himself to put the Anteaters up for good.
‘I didn’t try and think about it,’ Armstrong said about the gutsy shot that started UCI’s rally. ‘I don’t intentionally look to score. … I just knocked it down.’
Armstrong scored eight points in only 16 minutes of play, but he and the rest of the Anteaters were again overshadowed by the play of Fitzgerald. He was perfect from the field in the second half and scored 22 of his 28 points after intermission, and 14 of those points were scored during the rally.
‘Aaron Fitzgerald sparked us in the second half,’ Douglass said.
Junior forward Nic Campbell kept the Anteaters in the game early while the team struggled in the first half. Campbell ended up with 15 points.
But it was the Anteaters’ defense that helped them stay close.
‘We stayed in the game with our defense. We sure didn’t stay in it with our offense,’ Douglass said.
Senior guard Ross Schraeder and sophomore forward Patrick Sanders both had off nights and only combined for five points. But the performance by Armstrong demonstrates that UCI’s success comes from the ability of all their players to contribute. In their prior road game at UC Riverside, freshman forward Adam Templeton came off the bench to score 18 points.
‘We’ve had different guys pick us up,’ Douglass said.
‘It’s always big when you have different players stepping up. It’s hard for the other team to defend, because they don’t know who to defend,’ Fitzgerald said.
The Titans were tough all night, with four players in double figures. Senior forward Jamaal Brown led Fullerton with a team-high 18 points.
But at the end of the night, all eyes were on the Anteaters, who earned another victory. At the beginning of the season the Anteaters were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big West, and early season losses to two Division-II schools certainly gave the impression that UCI was going to fare worse. But Douglass knows that the team must continue striving to improve because the rest of the Big West is not going to roll over for them. Fullerton will have another shot to beat Irvine this Wednesday before UCI travels to Long Beach State for a showdown.
‘We haven’t had an easy game yet. … It always seems to come down to the last few possessions of the game,’ Douglass said. ‘Our team knows down the stretch that we can make some plays, and we’re responding to the challenge in the last five minutes of the game.’
Fitzgerald admitted that he didn’t expect UCI’s fast start in the Big West.
‘I’m pretty surprised, actually, because this is a great league,’ Fitzgerald said.
However, Armstrong is taking the success in stride.
‘It feels great,’ Armstrong said. ‘There’s no pressure. This is fun.’