With less than ten seconds left against Vanguard on Saturday evening, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team’s sophomore Will Davis II came up with the rebound off of an opponent’s long three-point attempt. Davis dished the ball up the court to point guard Derick Flowers, who passed it to Chris McNealy between the half-court and three-point lines with no defender in sight. As McNealy hesitated with a 99-92 lead, he heard Coach Russell Turner sitting a few feet behind him along the baseline.
“Score it,” Turner said, according to McNealy.
The junior guard took two dribbles, launched off of two feet and threw down a two-handed slam to eclipse the century mark. McNealy finished with 15 points, four rebounds and two assists. One second remained on the clock as the Anteaters went on to defeat Vanguard 101-92 in their only preseason exhibition.
In a game that shouldn’t have been as close as it was, McNealy’s dunk was symbolic. No. 5 threw the two-handed jam down with emphasis, as if to say, “We’re not going to come up short this season.” Coach Turner jokingly said after the game that he didn’t know McNealy could dunk, guaranteeing that it was the first time in McNealy’s college career that he had dunked twice in a game. McNealy later confirmed that it was his first dunk as an Anteater.
“We’ve got a lot of players who can score,” said McNealy, who came off the bench Saturday night after starting all 32 games and averaging 10.2 points per game last season. “We rotate. We’ve got 16 players who can score, so we’re going to see a lot of highlights this year.”
The last time the Anteaters scored 100 points in a game was January 29, 2011 in a 108-107 loss to UC Davis.
Across the board, UCI spread the wealth and looked like a deep team with a number of weapons — particularly in the paint. The five bigs — Adam Folker (6’9), John Ryan (6’10), Mike Best (6’10), Conor Clifford (7’) and Davis (6’8) – accounted for 49 points and 30 rebounds.
UCI basketball has come a long way in terms of the big men. Consider this: Two years ago, with then-power forward Eric Wise bothered by lower back injuries, the Anteaters played with Pavol Losonsky, a six-foot-eleven forward who preferred midrange jumpers to grinding in the paint, and Mike Wilder, a six-foot-two-inch tall guard, as the team’s center and power forward.
“I think we’re definitely on the rise,” sophomore forward Mike Best said pun-fully. “Having this kind of size will help us against Big West teams and against programs like UCLA, USC and Nevada.”
Irvine pulled down 51 rebounds on Saturday evening, 14 more than the team’s season average from a year ago. They also had 32 free throw attempts, 14 higher than last year’s average charity stripe total of 18 per game.
“Offensive rebounds, man, that’s what I live by,” sophomore John Ryan said after scoring 14 points and snagging nine rebounds, four of which were off the offensive glass.
Of the 12 active Anteaters, eight nabbed at least four rebounds and five scored in double-digits. Senior guards Daman Starring and Wilder, the two leading scorers from last season, scored seven and six points respectively — a great sign for a balanced Anteater team that didn’t need their leaders to bail them out. But with great scoring came great defensive letdowns late in the second half. UCI was outscored 63-56 in the final 20 minutes after leading 45-29 at halftime.
“I was surprised that we let them back into the game,” Turner said,“because we had control of the game, and I thought that we didn’t maintain that control. So that was a disappointing thing. We’ve got to figure that out, because it’s not going to be easy […].”
The two biggest losers on the Anteaters are freshman center Conor Clifford and Ryan. Clifford has now lost 35 pounds since arriving this summer for his rookie college season, while Ryan lost 30 pounds over the past year since transferring from Fresno State University.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for way too long,” Ryan said of his first game in an Anteater uniform.
The 7-foot Clifford made his first college basket a memorable one five minutes into the first half. Davis dished to the center in the low post, who had an open look at the rim. Clifford punished the rim with a one-handed slam for his first of five field goals on the evening.
“Conor might have the best hands in the league,” Ryan said of Clifford, whom he razzes often in practice, but clearly admires as a teammate. “He can catch anything we throw to him. It’s real fun to play with these guys.”
The freshman was 5-7 from the field and 1-1 at the free throw line, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds in his 11-minute debut. Clifford will continue to be Coach Turner’s big engine that could.
“I always jam on the gas pedal and blow through all my gas,” Clifford said of his energy level, shortly after walking out of the locker room to wave to his fellow freshman residents who remained in the stadium half an hour after the final buzzer, coming across campus from Middle Earth to see the big fella play.
“I’m playing against Adam Folker, John Ryan and Mike Best in practice and they’re the best competition for me,” Clifford said. “They know I like to go to the right sky hook so I have to come up with new moves against them. [Best] has been teaching me some new moves.”
At point guard, Derick Flowers typically goes by the nickname “Agent Zero” for his jersey number, but after taking an elbow to the mouth in the first half, D-Flo headed to the locker room to swap out his jersey, which was stained red. Flowers emerged in the second half with the number 12 on his back. So, Agent Twelve from now on, D-Flo?
“No, we’re back to Agent Zero next game,” Flowers said, laughing with a box of Dominos in his hands after scoring 13 points and making all three of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Backing up Flowers off the bench was Alex Young, whose skill set looks eerily similar to former Anteater Darren Moore. At six-feet-tall, Young is a tank, securing four offensive rebounds at the point, dishing out six assists and scoring nine points in his college debut. Young slashes to the basket like Moore used to and has exceptional touch around the rim. The freshman played a team-high 25 minutes and looks beyond his years in terms of maturity and decision-making on the court.
Folker’s offensive game looks better than ever, but it’s still befuddling that the Bren Events Center doesn’t play the Canadian national anthem pregame for the center from Markham, Ontario.
In 21 minutes, Folker scored 16 points, nailing all four of his free-throw attempts. Last season, Folker made just 34 percent of his free throws. Coach Turner preached relaxation at the end of last Thursday’s practice, encouraging players to think of someone or something they love to calm down, and slow down before shooting. Thirty minutes following the pep talk, Folker’s teammates had left the gym, but he was still on the court practicing his free throws long after his teammates’ departure.
In year’s past, the “I’m getting mine” selfish mentality has clouded the Anteaters’ team goals. Players often were too concerned with how a 20-point performance could improve the chances of an NBA Developmental League or European League contract.
This year’s Anteaters are different, mainly because Starring, Wilder, Folker, Flowers and McNealy are working their asses off for each other and playing selflessly. They share the ball, they share minutes, they hit open teammates, and so far, they’re winners.