Sub-.500, But Not Done Yet
Mike Wilder and company started the New Year off right, defeating Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday night with a final score of 85-78.
Coming off a four-game losing streak, the Anteaters looked determined and focused. Their playful pregame warm-ups were replaced with stern expressions and an intensity that made the boys in yellow seem more like a military unit ready for battle rather than a college basketball team.
From the opening minutes, UCI’s defensive efforts forced Fullerton into uncharacteristic turnovers which led to easy opportunities. After an early lead, the ’Eaters allowed Fullerton’s full-court press to get the best of them, forcing Head Coach Russell Turner to call a timeout.
Coach Turner turned to sophomore guard Mike Wilder, who finished the game with 17 points, to step up and fulfill the game assignments.
Guarding their leading scorer most of the game and forcing them into a lot of difficult plays is what Wilder does best, explained Turner. Hitting big shots and playing unselfishly, Wilder was ultimately the difference-maker in the game.
Shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half, UCI’s fast-paced offense had Fullerton winded and on their heels. Senior guard Patrick Rembert, who had been struggling offensively, had a monster game, scoring 20 points on 5 of 8 shooting and led both teams with five assists.
Plagued by injuries, Turner had to go to a smaller lineup. Outscored in the paint 40-24, the smaller lineup did have its disadvantages, but the speed and quickness of the ’Eaters proved effective, resulting in 10 fast break points to Fullerton’s zero.
“The strange thing with this team is that it’s almost like when we are missing guys we adopt that underdog mentality that it’s going to take for us to be successful,” Turner said. “The nice thing that we have been able to do from the beginning is that when a guy is out, it’s an opportunity for the next guy to step up.”
UCI opened up the second half with a small three-point lead, but Fullerton came out with a vengeance. Titan forward Orane Chin made a statement in the opening minute of play, slamming home a dunk on an assist from junior guard Perry Webster. They went on to take a four-point lead early in the half, but again, UCI’s defensive efforts frustrated the Titan’s half-court offense.
Rembert’s three-point play tied up the game at 49 and boosted the Anteater moral, not only for the players, but for the 1,881 fans in attendance. UCI managed to stretch the lead to 13 with the help of junior guard Derrick Strings, who racked up 11 points.
With a 13-point lead, and momentum on their side, the Anteaters seemed to get a bit too comfortable, allowing the Titans to slowly make their way back into the game. Freshman guard Isiah Umipig, who finished the game with 19 points off the bench, took advantage of UCI’s defensive lapse and kept the Titans alive. Standing at 6-1 and 180 pounds, Umipig’s ball handles and quickness left an impression on the Irvine coaching staff, as a player with a lot of potential and someone to look out for.
With less than one minute left, Fullerton managed to cut Irvine’s lead to four, but Wilder stepped up once again, hitting one of his three 3-pointers of the night, putting UCI up seven. Fullerton again cut the lead to four, but the ’Eaters maintained their lead and notched their first Big West win of the season.
“We had a lot of great effort on the floor tonight, and that’s what I am happiest about,” Turner said. “We played a really ragged game in some ways, but that happens when you may be over stimulated to the point where you are going to win the tough battles; tough battles for loose balls and all that, and I thought that was the difference in this game.”
UCI 78, LBSU 86
A combination of 19 first-half points by Darren Moore and nine points by freshman Chris McNealy in the span of one minute and 11 seconds and 62 percent shooting from the field gave the ’Eaters a comfortable 46-38 first-half lead. However, UC Irvine’s demise came in the last 15 minutes of the game.
The Anteaters closed out the game by going stone cold from the field as they managed to make seven of their last 30 shots. The Long Beach 49ers rallied from a first-half deficit, recording an 86-79 victory on Jan. 8.
Moore scored a game-high 23 points, nabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists in 36 minutes of play. Rembert added 18 points while forward Wise notched another 14 in the losing effort.
The Anteaters fall to 7-9 and 1-2 in Big West play. UCI travels to UC Santa Barbara on Thursday, Jan. 13 and take on the Mustangs of Cal Poly on Saturday, Jan. 15.