Beginning conference play at the Bren Events Center Wednesday night, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (8-9, 1-0) were able to knock off rival Long Beach State, 82-67, and begin their quest to defend their co-regular season championship from last season with a victory against the preseason top pick.
The senior trio of Ioannis Dimakopoulos, Luke Nelson, and Jaron Martin all finished scoring in double digits with 18, 16, and 12 respectively. Dimakopoulos shot perfect from beyond the arc (4-4), grabbed four rebounds, and missed only one shot (7-8) for the entire game.
“We did a great job, Brad (Greene), Tommy (Rutherford), (Jonathan) Galloway, going inside. Their (Long Beach State) plan was to double team down there so that gave me enough time to get them out there and the guards did a good job getting me wide open shots,” said Dimakopoulos.
Rutherford finished with nine points and seven rebounds while Greene tallied four points and five rebounds. Sophomore guard Spencer Rivers posted six points and freshman guard Eyassu Worku scored seven points and registered four rebounds.
For Long Beach State (5-12, 0-1), four different players ended with double-digit scoring nights as junior guard Evan Payne led all scorers with 19 points and added seven rebounds. The 49ers capitalized on 15 UCI miscues and turned them into 22 points in their favor. Long Beach State also cashed in on the free throw line and went 20-28 in the matchup.
UCI shot an efficient 52.7 percent from the field in the entire game while holding the 49ers to 42.6 percent from the floor. The 49ers, who were without preseason all-conference forward Gabe Levin, converted on only one three-pointer, going 1-14 in the contest. The ‘Eater second unit was key in the victory as they outscored the 49ers’ bench 26-10.
Early on, both teams couldn’t find separation from one another in a whistle heavy opening minutes. The ‘Eaters committed six early fouls in under six minutes into the game and were down 11-6 off a 6-0 spurt by the 49ers. A pair of threes from Rivers and Worku, however, fueled a 9-2 run to give the ‘Eaters a lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the game. The ‘Eaters picked up the intensity on the defensive end and forced nine Long Beach turnovers and held them to shoot 0-6 from deep and 36 percent from the floor in the opening period. Irvine closed off the half with a 10-2 run capped off by a Dimakopoulos shot inside to bolster a 53.6 percent showing and garner a 41-27 lead.
Long Beach State had a couple of rallies in the second half but Dimakopoulos would answer both with back-to-back threes to stifle any comeback attempts.
“Ioannis is a unique player in our league because he’s someone you have to gameplan for around the basket and he can also hurt you from deep and it usually takes a different type of player to guard him around the basket and from deep,” said head coach Russell Turner.
UCI would lead the game by as many as 19 points in the second period but a pesky 49er team would trim the lead to eight points but that is as close as they would get. The ‘Eaters sealed the game on a 6-2 run to give them some breathing space and exact their revenge against the team who knocked them out of the conference tournament just 10 months ago.
Irvine now has won eight of the last 11 meetings against the 49ers. Long Beach State leads the series 57-41, dating back to 1965. The ‘Eaters were placed to finish second in the preseason polls voted by the media, right under Black and Blue rival Long Beach State.
“Of course it feels good to beat a team that is picked to be above you but all this picking doesn’t really mean anything to me, and for the rest of the guys. We know that we are one of the defending champions of this league and we are going to do everything we can to defend that title,” said Dimakopoulos.
The ‘Eaters will have little time to celebrate their victory as they host the winner of last year’s Big West Tournament, Hawai’i, on Saturday for a 7:30 tipoff at the Bren. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Prime Ticket.