With two minutes left in the game, victory seemed all but wrapped up for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team having a five point lead against the first place team in the conference, Hawai’i. The thoughts of sweet revenge were soon halted, however, as the Rainbow Warriors were able to close out the game on a 14-3 run to secure a 75-71 victory and escape Irvine as the sole leader in the Big West conference.
The victory gives Hawai’i some comfort room and pushes the ‘Eaters away from contention for a Big West regular season title. UCI now shares second place with Long Beach State, a team who has won their last six games and who will face the ‘Eaters this Wednesday.
“We didn’t close the game and we weren’t able make stops at the end in order to win the way we have been able to so many times this year,” said Head Coach Russell Turner, “I don’t think we played very well offensively […] in the last four minutes and they made plays that our defense couldn’t stop and that was the difference.”
With Hawai’i senior guard Roderick Bobbitt and junior guard Aaron Valdes having little impact in the game, Bobbitt with a total seven points and Valdes in foul trouble the majority of the night, junior forward Stefan Jankovic took the responsibility on the offensive end and scored 25 points, also notching six rebounds and three assists. For the ‘Eaters, junior guard Luke Nelson led the way with 18 points, seven assists, and four steals. Junior center Mamadou Ndiaye also contributed with 15 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks. After a strong first half showing, shooting an efficient 50 percent, the ‘Eaters could not convert down the stretch and were held to just 37 percent from the field. Behind Jankovic, Hawai’i were able to shoot shoot 47 percent on the night allowing themselves to stay in the game and trade blows with the ‘Eaters.
Having last week’s loss against Hawai’i still fresh in their minds, the ‘Eaters took the three point shot away from the Rainbow Warriors in the first half holding them to 29 percent shooting. As a result, the tempo of the game fared well for the ‘Eaters as they outscored the Rainbow Warriors 22-14 in points in the paint. Taking away the shot that downed the ‘Eaters the first time around also lead to seven first half turnovers for Hawai’i, resulting in 10 UCI points. To end the first half, Ndiaye corralled a miss from Nelson and dunked the ball as time expired to give the ‘Eaters a 38-30 lead at the end of the first period.
A second half that included 28 fouls, favored the Rainbow Warriors, allowing the pace to be slowed down and the crowd to be momentarily distraught from the repeated stoppage of play. Irvine conceded eight turnovers in the second half and shot an abysmal 1-9 shooting for beyond the arc. Heading into the last minute of play with a two point lead, Ndiaye turned over the ball on a travel call that would ultimately be costly. Valdes, playing with four fouls down the stretch, hit a corner three to put his team in the lead for the first time in the half and for the rest of the game. The ‘Eaters got a good look from Nelson off the timeout but he wasn’t able to convert and Hawai’i played the free throw game to pick up the huge win on the road.
“It’s not easy to a play a game that we know meant as much as this one did and not be able to win it at home especially with the lead coming down the stretch,” said Turner, “We will show our character with the way we compete on Wednesday against Long Beach and our players know that every game we play means a big deal [in the] postseason.”
The ‘Eaters will look to bounce back as they will host the 49ers on Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. in the Bren Events Center.