It was a battle of the champions Thursday night as the UC Irvine men’s basketball team opened up conference play at home against the defending regular season champions of last season, UC Davis.
Last season, the Aggies won both games of the conference series against the ‘Eaters, including a 75-56 victory at the Bren Events Center. This no doubt provided the ‘Eaters with extra incentive for the ‘Eaters as they hoped to start conference play on a high note
“Last year they took us apart two times, once in this building,” said head coach Russell Turner, “ I think that that was part of what enabled our guys to be focused and concentrated on the defensive end.”
Dominate they did, as the ‘Eaters delivered and earned the 76-55 win over the Aggies, fueled by their defensive intensity and ability to score in the second half.
The ‘Eaters’ stifling defense held the Aggies to shooting 30% from the floor, 23% for three-pointers, and making only 15 field goals on the night. The combination of an elite defensive showing and an efficient performance on the offensive end – converting 53% from the field and 58% from deep – gave the ‘Eaters the win that they hoped for in their journey to a conference regular season title.
Junior guard Luke Nelson led the ‘Eaters in scoring with 16 points, making four of his five three-point shot attempts. His 10 points in the second half helped bolster an 18-8 run to separate the two teams and give the ‘Eaters their sixth win at home.
UC Davis were able to keep themselves in the game with their free throw shooting as they were awarded a total of 29 free throws in the game. Aggie senior forward Josh Fox scored most of his game high 17 points, accompanied by 10 rebounds, from the charity stripe as he sinked in 11.
“We gave them 29 free throws tonight which is too many for my liking,” said Turner, “ I didn’t think we showed good discipline to play without fouling in the first half.”
It didn’t take long for the ‘Eaters to put the clamps down on defense as they held the Aggies without a field goal in a period of 12 minutes in the first half. The Aggies shot an abysmal 26% in the first half but cashed in 10 points from the free throw line to help pace themselves against the ‘Eaters scoring in the paint. More than half of the ‘Eaters’ points in the first half came from the interior as they scored 16 points in the paint. The ‘Eaters’ struggle to defend without fouling is what slowed the game, to the Aggies’ advantage, and cost them points against them from the free throw line, ending the half with a 30-25 lead.
Nelson caught fire in the second half as his three point shooting contributed to the ‘Eaters’ 71% shooting from beyond the arc as a team in the second half.
“That’s the type of performance that we expect from Luke,” said Turner, “He’s still improving as a player and […] tonight he made shots.”
Irvine went on to push their lead to as many as 25 in the second half and ultimately earned the victory to remain undefeated at home.
“Our defense is how we show our togetherness and our commitment,” said Turner, “We’ve got good individual defenders and when we play the way we did tonight, we are capable of being a good defensive team.”
The ‘Eaters will be able to defend the Bren once more Saturday night as they face the UC Riverside Highlanders at 8:00 p.m. on ESPNU.