Thanksgiving Day marked the inauguration of the annual Anaheim Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center. The conference pitted eight teams from eight different conferences in a double consolation and winners bracket.
The Big West conference, represented by UC Irvine, hosted the event. The remaining participants were the University of Southern California, University of San Diego, University of Miami at Ohio, University of Tennessee Chattanooga, Southern Illinois University, South Alabama and Mississippi State University. The games took place on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
First Round- Loss 68-53
The tournament kicked off at 11 a.m. on Turkey Day. UCI was pitted against SEC power Mississippi State in the opener. The Bulldogs were a heavy favorite in the match-up, and the final score proved the prediction true.
However, the score was not an accurate reflection of the Anteaters’ play. As expected, the Bulldogs overwhelmed UCI to open the match, and the Anteaters looked unprepared. The size and athleticism of the Bulldog team is not necessarily found in the Big West Conference.
The Bulldogs had a convincing 29-16 lead with 6:08 left in the first half. The Bulldogs had been using their size and stellar shooting to sustain their lead. Enter Darren Fells and Chuma Awaji; the two came in and ignited the UCI offense early. They kept the Anteaters in the game with their inspired play, Awaji creating his own shots and Fells playing big against the big men in the paint. Fortunes seemed to have turned, and the Bulldogs looked dazed by the inspired and pesky play of the Anteater squad. The Anteaters cut the deficit to seven going into the half with the score at 41-34.
The Anteaters came into the second half with the same toughness with which they left. Their aggressive play had the Bulldogs on their heels. The Anteater squad was showing that it could keep up with top conference teams. The Anteaters managed to cut the lead to within five with 15:44 left in the second half.
After that, however, the Anteaters went cold turkey and only managed to muster up four points within the next five minutes. Mississippi State took the advantage and increased their lead to 11. From then on, the superior talent of players like Jamont Gordan and Berry Stewart led MSU to a convincing victory.
UCI shot just 25 percent from the field in the second half and was out-rebounded 43-31. Mississippi State shot an impressive 57.1 percent in the second half, a feat it struggled with in its first few games. ‘Shooters keep shooting. You don’t worry about missing shots. You keep playing defense and keep shooting, ‘ said Stewart.
Patrick Sanders led UCI with 18 points, and Fells and Awaji contributed 15 and 13 points, respectively.
Mississippi State Head Coach Rick Stansbury said, ‘This was a very scrappy, well-coached UCI basketball team. We knew they were well-coached and anytime you beat a Utah State team the way they did you know they are a quality basketball team.’
‘Playing a team like [Mississippi State] will most definitely help us. Just their size will help us against the smaller teams in the Big West,’ aid Darren Fells.
Second Round Consolation
UCI lost to UT Chattanooga 85-80 in the second round of the consolation bracket on Friday at the Anaheim Convention Center. Again, the Anteaters played impressively but could not stop the late rally.
UCI shot an impressive 56 percent from the field and 87.5 percent from the charity stripe. Sanders led the team with 21 points, and Trey Harris added 16 and was four of seven shooting from three-point range.
The Anteaters had tight hold of the game in the first half, taking a 46-39 lead into intermission.
With nine minutes left, UCI led 71-59. Then the Anteaters’ solid broke down. Chattanooga, of the Southern Conference, went on a 15-2 run in about four minutes and took a 74-73 lead.
They did not give up that lead as junior guard Stephen McDowell scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the final nine minutes. While UCI shot well, the Mocs ended the game shooting a whopping 60.4 percent from the field.
What really traumatized the Anteaters were their 21 turnovers in the game. The Mocs scored 16 points off turnovers and used them to cut the deficit immensely.
The Anteaters finally shot well after a night of abysmal shooting against Mississippi State. However, this time they made mistakes on the court, and their opponents capitalized. The Anteaters did have three players in double figures and a tournament-high 20 assists.
Hopefully, this was a character-building loss for the Anteaters. They know they can compete with the best; they just have to play their best and smartest to do so.
The UCI men’s basketball team lost for the third time in four games on the concluding day last Sunday at the Anaheim Classic.
Seventh Place Game
UCI competed against the University of San Diego in the 7th and 8th place game at the Anaheim Convention Center. The story of the match again was poor shooting and a plethora of turnovers for the Anteaters.
UCI did however out rebound the Toreros 31-24, but could not convert second chance points. UCI shot 35 percent from the field and USD shot 43.6 percent UCI took 21 more shots than San Diego. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Anteaters on Sunday afternoon was their inability to convert easy looks at the basket. Time after time, the Anteaters saw shots come up just short or spin around the room and pop out.
The Anteaters also sent the Toreros to the foul line 26 times, and they converted an impressive 23 free throws on the game.
Despite shooting horribly and being plagued by turnovers, the Anteaters kept the game close. The game was turning into a nail biter when the team kept exchanging fouls in the last minute. Chuma Awaji converted five of six free and shot a clutch three pointer with 20 seconds left to keep the game within reach. Following a pair of San Diego free throws by Brandon Johnson, Awaji had two opportunities to tie the game with 10.2 seconds left, but failed to convert on both attempts.
The Anteaters were tough in hanging with the Toreros and even keeping it close until the end of regulation. Awaji led the Anteaters with 16 points, and Patrick Sanders finished with 13. Darren Fells finished with six points and seven rebounds and was an impressive presence in the low post early in the game.
Ultimately, their problems with turning the ball over, and poor finishing at the basket led to their defeat in this tournament.