Behind a historic 36 point performance from junior guard Luke Nelson, the No. 2 seeded UC Irvine men’s basketball team were able to fend off Cal Poly’s upset attempt and earn the 84-64 win at the Honda Center to advance to the semifinal matchup of the Big West tournament. Nelson’s career high night also marked as the second most points scored by a player in tournament history (first place being Cal State Fullerton’s Josh Akognon’s 37 points in 2009).
“Luke was pretty good tonight, I didn’t realize he had 36 [and] it seemed that any time he rose for a shot it looked like it was going to go in,” said Head Coach Russell Turner, “He had a great performance individually with 36 points, that’s pretty special, but I also thought we did a good job on the defensive end.”
To round up the guard play for the ‘Eaters, senior guard Alex Young contributed with 10 points, six assists, four steals, and three rebounds. The ‘Eater duo would account for more than half of UCI’s 84 total points.
Cal Poly gave the ‘Eaters a run for their money in the first half scoring nine three pointers in the period. Sticking to their game plan of spreading the floor against the ‘Eater defense, Mustang sophomore forward Luke Meikle, who scored a career high of his own with 19 points, turned in a perfect half of shooting by converting on 4-4 for three pointers and cashing in on his two free throw attempts. The Mustangs shot an impressive 69 percent from beyond the arc in the first half giving them an early lead against the ‘Eaters.
Struggling to find a rhythm on offense, the ‘Eaters turned to Nelson to create opportunities to score as he led all scorers in the first period with 17 points. Both teams shot a near identical shooting percentage in the first half with the ‘Eaters shooting 43 percent while the Mustangs shot for 42 percent. A 12-5 run by the ‘Eaters with 2:42 left in the first half would give UCI the lead for the remainder of the game. A three point shot by the Mustangs, as time expired in the first half, cut the ‘Eater lead to 38-36 heading into halftime.
“I didn’t think our offense was very good in the first half, we scored 38 points because we made a lot of tough shots and didn’t do a good job moving the ball very well [because] Cal Poly played us real differently than the other two times they had played us,” said Turner, “We were slow to adjust to that [but] we’re a good team because we have a bunch of different guys who can step up when we need it and Luke did that for us tonight.”
Guard play from the ‘Eaters came up huge to open the second half, coming out of the locker room and going on a 13-5 spurt, eight of the 13 coming from Nelson. Surprisingly, things seemed to go directly in the ‘Eaters’ way after an altercation between a Mustang player and UCI sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway resulted in the ejection of junior center Mamadou Ndiaye. Ndiaye would be expelled from the game for walking on the court when he was a designated player on the bench but his penalty would not result in a suspension in tonight’s semifinal game.
“I am not upset with him at all, I don’t think what he did warranted an ejection,” said Turner, “You cannot play this game without passion and emotion [but] he’ll be fresh tomorrow after only 16 minutes of play tonight.”
Garnering a 7-10 three point performance in the second half, Irvine would comfortably take a 20 point lead to win the game and go on to their fifth straight Big West tournament semifinal game. With win number 25, the ‘Eaters tie their own record for most wins in program history.
The ‘Eaters will advance to the semifinal round of the conference tournament to face rival Long Beach State, whom they swept in the regular season, for a 9:00 p.m. tipoff at the Honda Center.