This might be the most encouraging 23-point loss in college basketball history.
The University of Southern California defeated the UC Irvine men’s basketball team 78-55 in the regular season opener for both teams at the Galen Center on Saturday.
The Anteaters were not expected to shock the nation, playing against an experienced and accomplished Trojan squad, and they certainly did not. They are tabbed to finish sixth in the Big West by the media because of the loss of All-Conference players such as Patrick Sanders and Darren Fells.
However, that may all change.
The Anteaters looked as if the pre-season conference prediction was correct as they allowed USC to jump out to an early 10-2 lead. The Trojans’ superior talent and ball-handling left the Anteaters dazed. However, following two UCI timeouts in the opening minutes, the Anteaters came out looking like a different team.
Following the timeout, Center Zack Atkinson hit a mid-range jumper to bring it to a six-point deficit. UCI then caught fire. Kevin Bland regained confidence in his shot and drilled a jumper and a three-pointer. Patrick Rembert hit a couple free throws, and Brett Lauer nailed a three. We even saw something new from the UCI team, a slasher to the basket in the form of Darren Moore. Coach Pat Douglass said that the Anteaters switched to a new offense following the timeouts.
“They came out and started double-teaming more than we anticipated. We went with our secondary offense; they were double-teaming too much for our screening game,” said Douglass.
The Anteaters may have to permanently switch to that penetrating offense as they fought back and took a 22-20 lead with 4:51 left in the first half. Dare it be said, but UCI looked better than USC.
Moore would continue to successfuly penetrate against one of the best shot-blocking centers in the nation, Taj Gibson. He finished the first half as the leader with 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.
“Coach told me I need to be more aggressive,” Moore said. “He told me he brought me here to be the heart of the team and be aggressive. I think it sparked a little something inside me.”
UCI would keep neck-and-neck with the Trojans until Leonard Washington hit a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to give the Trojans a 35-29 halftime lead.
The three-pointer brought a huge momentum shift to the Trojans as they came out firing in the second half. USC shot a whopping 60 percent from the field to UCI’s 34.5.
The Anteaters came out flat, and you cannot do that against a talented USC team that features one of the best recruits in the nation, freshman DeMar DeRozen and veteran juniors such as Dwight Lewis and Taj Gibson.
While Moore kept his former summer league opponent, DeRozen, from exploding, Lewis and Gibson filled the void. Lewis caught fire and finished the game with 18 points, but Gibson exposed the greatest Anteater weakness: their post-defense.
Gibson scored nearly all of his 17 points off of dunks or free throws that came off dunk attempts. The Anteaters had no answer to the Trojans feeding Gibson under the basket and as a result, never seemed to get back into the game.
Chad DeCasas, who scored 18 points against Cal Poly Pomona, was shut down by the stifling Trojan defense.
“They denied everything to Chad. They pick up on who the better players are. and they shut them down. They are well coached,” Douglass said.
There were many positives that could be taken away from the game. Atkinson showed that he had a mid-range jumper, Rembert managed the offense well against the full-court press, freshman Eric Wise can hold his own in the post, Lauer might be the best spot shooter on the team and Moore is going to be a top player in the Big West. Keep in mind that all of this can be deduced from a game against one of the most talented teams in the nation.
Atkinson finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds, and Lauer with 12 points on 3-5 shooting from three-point range.
The Trojans will probably be the toughest opponent the Anteaters play all season. However, if UCI plays like they did in the first half, a Big West title does not seem far-fetched.
Moore did not seem deflated, or disappointed with the team’s performance in the game.
“It was a good experience. I wish we could have won, but we know what we got to do now. We played against high-profile guys. We’ll get another Pac-10 team; we’ll get Oregon.”
UCI plays Eastern Washington at home on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. before they they host the University of Oregon on Friday at the Bren Events Center.