Ready for March Madness
It was a bittersweet moment at center court in the Bren Events Center Thursday night, as the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team honored their core group of seniors: John Ryan, Travis Souza and Will Davis II.
Although the team (18-11, 11-4) would say goodbye to their vital role players and commemorate their effort to bring the basketball program to new heights, they celebrated a hard fought 68-62 victory over Cal State Fullerton (9-21, 1-14).
Thursday night’s game was surprisingly competitive as both teams struggled to score, shooting under 50 percent. UCI sophomore center, Mamadou Ndiaye had an impressive return to the Bren (last home game played Jan. 10 against Riverside), as he scored 12 points to go along with eight rebounds and six blocks. Sophomore guard, Luke Nelson led the ‘Eaters in scoring with 15 points and helped secure the victory over the upset minded Titans.
Defense was a plenty in the first half as UCI scored only 33 percent of their shots but kept Fullerton to shooting an egregious 27 percent from the floor. Part of CSUF’s struggle to score was due to Mamadou’s four blocks in the first half, which led to the Titans scoring only four points in the paint. Irvine found themselves in an early three-point deficit due to their inability to capitalize off Fullerton’s six turnovers in the first half. The momentum shifted to the Anteaters’ way with 10 minutes left in the half, as junior guard, Alex Young hit the jumper off a Ndiaye block to give them the lead. In the closing seconds of the half, Nelson drilled a shot from beyond the arc to give UCI the lead going into the second half, 25-22.
”It was a slugfest,” said UCI head coach, Russell Turner on his team’s first half performance. “We did a good job defensively holding them to only 22 points in the first half (and) at the pace we were playing, we weren’t able to put too much on the board ourselves.”
While the top team in the conference, UC Davis, was losing in a close game against UC Riverside, UCI found their offensive fluidity and pulled through to get the win on senior night. The Anteaters scored a majority of their points at the free throw line and cashed in, shooting 72 percent on the night. The Anteaters’ defensive zone gave Fullerton trouble to score and quickly opened up a nine-point lead for UCI. With Irvine’s starters struggling to score, junior forward Mike Best stepped up his game and contributed five points, three rebounds and three blocks. Fullerton would not let up and cut the lead to four with seven minutes left in the game. Titan junior Lanerryl Johnson scored a game high 21 points, which kept his team alive in the second half.
It did not take long for UCI senior guard, Travis Souza to catch fire as he scored three three-point baskets in the second half to be accompanied by four rebounds and five assists. The ‘Eaters began to pull away with their effort on defense and shooting from beyond the arc. With four minutes left in the game, Ndiaye swatted a shot on the defensive end that led to a three-point bomb by sophomore, Jaron Martin on the offensive end. That sequence in events would cause Irvine to take control of the game and seal the deal against Fullerton. As the game was without question heading towards UCI’s way, head coach Russell Turner retired Will Davis II and Travis Souza for the last time of their careers in the Bren Events Center. Receiving a standing ovation, the seniors celebrated their finale with a victory and hopes to translate that feeling in the Big West tournament next week at the Honda Center.
“The Defend the Bren slogan rings true,” said Souza on his thoughts of playing in the Bren Events Center for the last four years, “we know it’s a hard place to play when we play well and I’ll miss the competition when we play here.”
Both Davis II and Souza expressed their gratitude for the Irvine community for coming and supporting the program to their new heights of competitiveness.
“I’m probably going to miss the fans the most,” said Davis II. “They’ve supported us through the ups and downs.”
UCI went up to northern California to face UC Davis this Saturday for a possible preview of the Big West championship game. The Aggies defended their home court as senior guard, Corey Hawkins dropped in 30 points against Irvine. With UC Irvine losing to a score of 80-61 against Davis, the Anteaters are now the third seed in the Big West conference tournament in the Honda Center this Thursday night. They will face the Highlanders of UC Riverside in hopes to progress to win the tournament and make their first NCAA tournament in program history.