Having been named a captain in the offseason, senior guard Jaron Martin showed the poise of a leader and led the UC Irvine men’s basketball team to an 81-63 victory over Division II team Sonoma State in their lone exhibition game of the season at the Bren Events Center on Saturday.
Behind Martin’s 11 points in the second half, the ‘Eaters were able to stifle the Seawolves’ comeback attempt and secure the double-digit victory in front of the 1449 fans in attendance.
“I thought our seniors played very well today. Jaron Martin and Ioannis Dimakopoulos … they looked like true seniors out there,” said head coach Russell Turner.
Along with leading all scorers with 18 points, Martin registered four steals, three assists and three rebounds to cap his stat line. Senior center Dimakopoulos followed with a 13-point, five rebound and two assist performance without missing a single shot on the game. Senior guard Luke Nelson did not participate in Saturday’s game as he is nursing a minor injury, but is hopeful to be ready to go for Friday night’s matchup against Utah State.
Several of the rejuvenated ‘Eater squad saw their first time on the collegiate floor, with freshman forward Tommy Rutherford (posting eight points, five rebounds and four blocks) and redshirt freshman Max Hazzard (notching 10 points, two steals and a rebound) both showing their readiness to play. Freshman Eyassu Worku earned seven points and four assists while fellow freshman John Edgar Jr. contributed with four rebounds and three assists.
“I think all of those freshmen are talented kids, and they’ve all been inconsistent, as you expect freshman to be at times and they look spectacular the other times, and that’s normal,” said Turner. “That’s what we’re working through, and that’s the best thing you can get from a game like today, which is to give them a real experience under the lights they can hopefully learn from.”
Irvine dominated in the first half, converting on 64 percent of their shots while holding the Seawolves to a mere 30 percent. The ‘Eaters came out looking to make their damage inside as Dimakopoulos scored 11 of his points in the first half. Sonoma State struggled to get their offense going as they committed 11 turnovers, which in turn resulted in 19 ‘Eater points. The ‘Eaters cruised to a 43-25 lead at halftime, with hopes to allow more of the freshman to compete for minutes, but the Seawolves would not let down easily.
Sonoma State managed to give the ‘Eaters trouble in the rebounding department — 42-34 in favor of the Seawolves — and eventually cut the deficit to 10 points in the second half. The young squad was pressured to create offense late into the shot clock and was forced to take shots from the perimeter with little time to operate, putting up an abysmal 1-14 showing from deep in the second period. The ‘Eaters also had difficulties keeping the Seawolves off the free throw line, as they had 23 opportunities to cash in on the charity stripe in the second half.
“I thought we dictated the game in the first half, and I wasn’t surprised a lot other than our inability to rebound, especially in the second half,” said Turner. “I thought we got beat on the boards on both ends pretty badly, which we need to clean up, but some of that was our aggressiveness from our shot blockers.”
With six minutes left and Dimakopoulos fouling out of the game, the ‘Eaters turned to Martin to run their attack and serve as the closer to seal up the victory. Martin converted four out of his five shots in the second half, including a three to give the ‘Eaters the momentum and the reins of the game. The score went back up to a comfortable lead and the ‘Eaters would celebrate their tuneup game before the regular season with a win.
“I think we gave them 30, fouls and that’s where they got most of their points; off free throws,” said Martin of where his team needs to improve before Friday. “As time goes on, we’re just going to get better, especially with a young group that’s eager to learn, and I think that’s important and we’ll be alright.”
The ‘Eaters are set to face a Mountain West foe in Utah State Friday night and kick off the Sanford Pentagon Showcase at home next Monday against a 2015 NCAA tournament team in South Dakota State. Both games will have a 7:00 p.m. tipoff at the Bren Events Center.