On a night when the seniors should have had their swan song, when the team could have had an opportunity to gear up for the conference tournament, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team played abysmally, not even appearing to deserve the second seed.
Perhaps the best thing for the Anteaters is to simply forget last Saturday night. Just erase it from their memory.
In their last game of the regular season, UCI was sloppy, lazy and just plain ugly. Relinquishing an early 21-point lead, UCI lost to Cal State Long Beach by 20 points, 93-73, during Senior Night on March 4 at the Bren Events Center in front of 3,790.
If the Anteaters bear any resemblance to the team that showed up on Saturday when they take the court in the Big West Conference tournament semifinals on Friday night, they’ll be in trouble.
Offensively, Irvine played relatively well, shooting over 50 percent from the field. However, they shot themselves in the foot with their defense, allowing the second highest scoring team in the country to light them up.
‘We just couldn’t get stops,’ said senior guard Ross Schraeder. ‘We just didn’t play the way we should have played the whole game. We came out and got on them right away, we got our shots, but we didn’t have a good defensive effort throughout the game and it caught up with us at the end.’
Head Coach Pat Douglass echoed his players’ sentiments.
‘I thought we came out ready to play, we got the big lead. And then we seemed, in the next five to six minutes, to not take good shots. In the second half we just really didn’t stop them. We just didn’t have an answer for them,’ Douglass said. ‘I think that after the first 10 minutes we lost focus about what we were supposed to do defensively.’
The second-highest scoring team in the country, the 49ers caught fire after intermission and ended with five players in double figures, led by junior guard Aaron Nixon with a team-high 24 points.
In a game of runs, the Anteaters were unable to find the next gear and fight back.
‘It was all effort,’ said senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald. ‘Rebounds, all the little stuff we did in the first half we didn’t do in the second half.’
The most shocking statistic of the game was the difference in turnovers: Long Beach State committed only five, while UCI coughed up 22. The points off turnovers margin was 34-0 in favor of the 49ers.
With a strong first half of conference play, UCI (16-12, 10-4 Big West) was able to hold onto second place in the standings, and will have a bye into the semifinals. Irvine will play the highest remaining seed on Friday night, which may well be third-seeded Long Beach State (16-11, 9-5).
However, the team isn’t looking that far into the future just yet.
‘We’ve got to go back to practice,’ Douglass said. ‘We’ll go back and work on what we need to correct. … It doesn’t matter who we play if we play defense like that.’
When asked about his outlook and assessment of the conference tourney, Douglass was speechless.
‘I’m shell-shocked right now,’ Douglass said. ‘I really can’t assess anything right now.’
The Anteater players were still able to draw some positives from the game.
‘We know what we need to do, and we know what we need to tighten up,’ Schraeder said.
This game was a tough way for the five seniors to end their careers at UCI. Jeff Gloger, who sat out the entire season with a knee injury, transfers Shamar Armstrong, Adam Metelski and Fitzgerald, and five-year veteran Schraeder were recognized at the end of the game for their contributions to the team. Even in the loss, the seniors led the way as Schraeder dropped in a game-high 25 points, Armstrong had 11 and Fitzgerald dished out 10 assists.
‘It was an emotional game,’ Shraeder said. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to go out with a 20-point loss but it was fun to play here the last five years.’
BIG WEST TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
The road to the Big West Conference tournament championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament will once again run through Pacific.
The Tigers (22-7, 12-2) wrapped up their third regular-season conference crown last week, winning their last 10 conference games. Led by Christian Maraker, the likely candidate to win the conference player of the year award, the Tigers will be the No. 1 seed and the favorite to win it all. They will take on the lowest remaining seed in the semifinals on March 10 at the Anaheim Convention Center.
During the first half of conference action, UCI was the best team in the league. But the Anteaters stumbled, losing to the three other teams that are the major contenders for the crown in the last few weeks (Pacific, Long Beach State, Cal Poly). However, since they were able to hold onto second place, Irvine will have a bye into the semifinals and play the highest remaining seed on Friday.
Many questions hang over UCI and its ability to get its first berth in school history to the big dance. The ‘Eaters have ridden a rollercoaster of a season, starting off 4-8 and losing to two D-II teams, before rallying for 8 straight conference wins only to cool off late.
With wins over every team in the conference this year, UCI knows they can hang with any of them. The three keys for the Anteaters will be defense, turnovers and breaking the press. The team knows that their defense sparks their offense; senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald has to be sharp while being the playmaker, and the team has to be ready to break the full-court press they know they’ll be faced with.
The other two main contenders are the teams that finished third and fourth in the regular season, Long Beach State and Cal Poly. Both turned their seasons around during conference play with spirited performances. The 49ers and Mustangs both have quick players that play rough and drive to the basket and wreak havoc. These two teams will start their games on Thursday night in the quarterfinals.
Long Beach State and Cal Poly will await the winners of the opening round match ups on Wednesday night between No. 5 UC Santa Barbara versus No. 8 UC Riverside and No. 6 Cal State Fullerton versus No. 7 Cal State Northridge.
Fullerton and Northridge have been disappointments so far; Fullerton was the preseason favorite to win the conference led by point guard Bobby Brown, and Northridge was expected to do well, too. The road to the NCAA for the bottom four will be tough as they will have to win four games in four nights, but as the regular season panned out, it only shows that anything can happen this week in Anaheim.