On Thursday night, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team capped of the Senior Night festivities with a 72-62 win over Cal Poly, locking them as the second seed heading into the Big West Tournament next week.
The historic senior class of Shawn Ray, Dominique Dunning, Aaron Wright, Mike Best, and Alex Young were honored before the game for their involvement in four 20 win seasons and leading the program to its first ever NCAA tournament appearance. In front of a boisterous crowd of 3,004 people inside the Bren Events Center, the seniors were to start and finish the game making the night a bittersweet moment in their closing collegiate careers.
“They are the winningest class that has ever come through here [and] for us to have won 20 games each of the last four years is a credit to their commitment and their improvement,” said Head Coach Russell Turner, “Those guys believed in us when they came here when there wasn’t a reason to do that and now [that] there is, they take pride in the change of perspective in our program and the changed environment for college basketball.”
Four different ‘Eaters scored in double digits in the contest including Best who had a team high of 19 points. The ‘Eaters took a number of high percentage shots cashing in 40 points in the paint to fuel their efficient night from the floor of 57 percent. UCI held their end defensively holding the Mustangs to a poor 32 percent from the floor and 18 percent from beyond the arc. It was the Mustangs’ 24 of 29 made free throws that kept them in the game and forced the ‘Eaters to once again close the game out.
“I’m happy for our seniors, I thought it was a great performance for those guys [and] they sent us out tonight with a win,” said Turner, “That’s what I expect of those guys in March and that’s one of the reasons why have a chance to continue to be good.”
Throughout the contest, Cal Poly showed their ability to handle the ‘Eaters’ zone defense by moving the ball, spacing the floor and drawing foul calls frequently. The first half saw the Mustangs shoot an abysmal 1-13 on three point attempts but were able to cash in on 11 free throws, pacing themselves with the ‘Eaters and find themselves down by only two points at the end of the first half. Senior guard David Nwaba, who finished the night with a double-double of a career high 25 points and 10 rebounds, earned nine of his points from the free throw line. Free throw shooting was not going to be the answer against the red hot scoring of the ‘Eaters, however, as a 65 percent field goal performance in the second period was too much to handle and ultimately gave the ‘Eaters the ten point win.
“It’s been a great ride, from where I first started five years ago to where the program has grown now, it has just been amazing to watch and be apart of,” said Best, “I’m appreciative of the opportunity [and] grateful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
With the win, the ‘Eaters solidify a 6:00 p.m. time slot in the conference tournament Thursday night in the Honda Center against a seven seed that has yet to be determined. The ‘Eaters could also earn a share of the regular season title with Hawai’i given a UCI win at Riverside and a Rainbow Warrior loss at Long Beach.
The ‘Eaters will finish their 2015-2016 regular season at Riverside tonight as they play the Highlanders for a 2:00 p.m. tipoff.