In their last non-conference game of the season, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (11-5) faced a familiar opponent in New Mexico State, to whom they lost to last season by a score of 70-67 on the road.
Saturday night’s matchup against the Aggies proved to be a revenge game for the ‘Eaters as they came out victorious by a margin of just two points. Heading into conference play, the ‘Eaters had a challenging tuneup, as the Aggies (8-7) had won their conference in four consecutive years and made it to the NCAA tournament five out of the last six seasons.
Experience came to be the key factor in the closing minutes of Saturday night’s game at the Bren Events Center as the ‘Eaters ended the game on an 8-0 run fueled by seniors Mike Best and Alex Young. Young — who had 17 points, five rebounds, four steals, and three assists — led the ‘Eaters on both sides on the court, and Best eventually hit the game-winning shot with 19 seconds left in the game. The ‘Eaters put the clamps down on defense and held the Aggies scoreless in the last three minutes of the game.
Irvine’s main assignment on defense was sophomore forward Pascal Siakam, who has averaged 23.9 points and 11.7 rebounds this season. The ‘Eaters struggled to contain him, however, as he ended the first period with 11 points, six rebounds and four assists.
“I thought earlier in the game, we were not nearly active enough around [Siakam],” said head coach Russell Turner, “He proved to be a better passer than what I have seen from him. He’s an excellent player.”
The first half saw the ‘Eaters stumble on the offensive end, shooting 35 percent from the field and scoring only eight points in the paint compared to the Aggies’ 14. New Mexico State had the answer against the ‘Eater zone in the opening period, as they shot an efficient 48 percent from the floor and 43 percent from deep. The Aggies obtained their largest lead of the night, nine points, with 3:13 left in the half, but the ‘Eaters responded with a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to 30-27 heading into the second period of play.
Looking to reestablish their identity inside, the ‘Eaters came out in the second half looking to make damage in the paint. Junior center Mamadou Ndiaye opened the half for the ‘Eaters with four straight points in the paint with a free throw to give the ‘Eaters the lead. The Aggies would soon answer back with the three ball as sophomore guard Jayln Pennie — who scored 12 points off four shots from deep — hit back to back-to-back threes to give New Mexico back the lead.
“I give him credit,” said Turner. “Pennie made a bunch of threes in the second half, [and] we were slow to adjust to that.”
Capping off a 10-0 run, the Aggies were in possession of the lead midway through the second half, up six points. In a tightly-contested second half, the ‘Eaters found their defensive identity and caused nine Aggie turnovers in the period to help aid their late game run to win the game.
“We’re a defensive team and we won with that tonight,” said Turner. “I’m pleased with our team’s performance down the stretch.”
With two minutes left in the game, Young hit a two-point jumper to cut the deficit to just two points. The boisterous crowd of 2,866 people then stood up for the remainder of the game as the ‘Eaters looked to pay the Aggies back for their narrow loss last season. After keeping the Aggies scoreless the following possession, Ndiaye shot a 10-foot jumper that bricked off the rim but was collected and tipped back in by a soaring Young to tie the game with 1:07 left in the contest. With momentum on their side, the ‘Eaters forced a shot clock violation from the Aggies to have possession of the ball and an opportunity to take the lead in the closing seconds of play. With the Aggie defense sagged in the paint to crowd the positioned Ndiaye, Young delivered a bounce pass to a wide open Best, who nailed a long two-point jumper to give them the lead and eventually win the game. A strong defensive stand to close out the game was enough to edge the Aggies and give the ‘Eaters the 54-52 victory.
With the conclusion of the game, the ‘Eaters end the non-conference slate of their schedule and look towards Big West play.
“Now we start a new season,” said Turner. “A sixteen-game championship is what we’re going to play for, and we know that we’ve got an experienced group who wants badly to win [and] keep getting better.”
The ‘Eaters will begin conference play this week at the Bren as they host the defending Big West regular season champions UC Davis on Wednesday and UC Riverside on Saturday. Both games will be televised, as the matchup with UC Davis will be on FOX Prime Ticket at 7:30 p.m. and the game against UC Riverside will be on ESPNU at 8:00 p.m.