Antourage Insider: The Stretch Run

After five straight conference losses threatened to torpedo the entire season for UCI, it was great to see some inspired play against a strong UC Santa Barbara team. The 66-63 win without star forward Eric Wise showed what this year’s Anteaters are all about — playing hard, playing small and above all, playing gritty.

The win gives UCI a leg up on UC Davis, who now occupies last place in the Big West by themselves. This is important because the top eight teams (of nine) in the conference make it to the Big West Tournament.

Once there, anything can happen. I know I’ve said this before, but UCI’s recent play only further verifies that anything can happen in the post-season. UCI has now beaten Long Beach State, Cal Poly (on the road) and UCSB, the top two teams in the standings and the pre-season favorite, respectively. On the other hand, UCI has lost to UC Davis and UC Riverside, the other two teams in the bottom of the league currently.

Senior point guard Patrick Rembert deserves some recognition. The only four-year senior on the team, Rembert isn’t usually the flashiest guy. In the past, he’s been thoroughly frustrating at times with his over-dribbling. But this year, he has finally seemed to put things together consistently. He leads the team in minutes, and has improved his 3-point shot dramatically in his time here.

Saturday’s win may have been his magnum opus thus far, as Rembert was one rebound and one assist away from putting up a triple-double. I repeat, a triple-double! Remarkable when you consider that he is 6’0 and averaged a mere 3.1 assists per game before Saturday. Bravo.

I have no more words left to describe Pavol Losonsky’s Jekyll and Hyde routine. But if he can keep up Saturday’s inspired play for the stretch run, UCI will have a weapon that no one else on the team can really replicate.

Eric Wise has now missed 10 games on the season after injuring his hamstring on Jan. 29. UCI is 5-5 on the season without Wise, but 1-3 in Wise’s latest stint in street clothes. Although it is impossible to say for sure, I would gather the Anteaters having at least two or three more wins under their belt if Wise had been healthy all year.

The “triangle-and-two” defensive plan that Head Coach Russell Turner implemented against UCSB was golden. Being able to successfully implement a game plan against UCSB’s top two players shows Turner and his coaching staff’s acumen as gameday strategists. Good to see.

I know my colleague the Sports Manual covered this in-depth last week, but I want to reiterate — stop rushing the court after undeserving wins. Afro Thunder is great, but please do not further disrespect the game by rushing the court after regular wins. It not only greatly cheapens the experience, but it makes you seem like illegitimate fans who are just there for a cheap thrill.

Instead, honor the tradition of lining up outside the baseline opposite of the home bench and high fiving the players running by (I’m sure they would do that if they saw the appropriate crowd). And that’s all I have to say about that.

Getting to play Nevada in the BracketBusters game on Feb. 19 was a good draw for UCI. The Wolf Pack will represent a bigger name and tough challenge for the Anteaters both this season and next, when Nevada will have to return the favor by traveling to UCI. They have won six of their last seven, including a sweep of San Jose St., who defeated UCI earlier this season.

Nevada also makes much more sense geographically compared to last year’s draw, Marist University (Poughkeepsie, New York).

Up next in Big West play: a tough match-up against Pacific. As much as Coach Turner hates to make excuses, it is indisputable that UCI’s depth has been hampered by the loss of Wise.

Already short on big men because of the never-ending saga of Maxime Chupin and Adam Folker’s injury woes, getting UCI’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder back will be big for the team’s chances against Pacific. Without No. 34, UCI lacks a true post presence.

Then again, Rembert and crew showed that a Wise-less ’Eaters team shouldn’t be counted out. Although the standings may not look pretty, don’t give up on UCI just yet.