Closing out their conference opening stay at home, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (9-9, 2-0) hosted fellow defending regular season co-champion Hawai’i i Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.
In front of the 2,359 people in attendance, the ‘Eaters demonstrated the dominant force they can be in the Big West by routing the Rainbow Warriors (6-9, 0-2) 84-56 to become one of the three teams who remain perfect in conference play.
“[It’s] two good wins but it’s two games that we’re supposed to win. We’re at home, we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the conference and we have to win these games.” said senior guard Luke Nelson, “We won them in good fashion and it’s been uplifting for us”.
Once again, it was the ‘Eaters’ ability to turn to their bench for production (outscoring Hawai’i’s bench 39-21) and intensity on both ends of the court that resulted in a balanced victory. All 13 ‘Eaters who saw the floor scored in the contest with the senior tandem of guard Jaron Martin and center Ioannis Dimakopoulos leading the way with 12 points apiece. Sophomore forward Brandon Smith registered nine points and seven boards while freshman forward John Edgar Jr. made the most of his nine minutes by posting 10 points and two rebounds. Freshman bigs Tommy Rutherford (nine points and two rebounds) and Brad Greene (four points and six rebounds) gave Irvine the presence inside they needed, bolstering 36 points in the paint, controlling the battle of the boards (39-28), and boosting a 57.1 percent shooting percentage for the ‘Eaters.
“We’ve got a deep team full of talented players and that’s what allows us to have an identity that we’re going to defend and play hard and if you don’t do that, we’re gonna put someone else in there,” said seventh year head coach Russell Turner, “I think that one of the great things about where we are right now is that we often get really good energy from our bench, they’re hungry and learn from what they see.”
In his third game back from injury (hamstring), Nelson scored nine points, snatched three steals and grabbed two rebounds in his 14 minutes of play. The preseason all-conference guard has been able to ease back in the lineup without much pressure and play at his own pace, impacting the team on offense and on defense.
“It’s been natural transition.” said Nelson, “I’ve been around practice for longer than people outside the team know so it’s been pretty natural.”
Nearly three minutes into the game, the ‘Eaters found themselves down 9-2 but a timeout from a livid coach Turner gave his team the spark they needed to refocus and play their brand of defensive basketball. The ‘Eaters continued on to hold the Rainbow Warriors to just 25.8 percent from the floor and to go 2-18 from beyond the arc to fuel a closing 26-4 run, earning them a 39-20 lead heading into halftime.
“What I want is for our team to have a set of defensive expectations that continue to rise.” said coach Turner, “We’ve got really good individual defensive players in a lot of positions so if we recognize that and then can continue to improve at the little things that will allow us to effective in both our man and zone then we are going to be a good defensive team.”
Irvine went on to cruise to victory as they led by as many as 29 points behind a 62.5 percent showing from the floor in the second half.
“This championship will be decided over the course of 10 weeks. We’ve gotten off to a 2-0 start because we’ve took two home games but we now need to show that we can go on the road and compete and perform.” said Turner, “We do have three road wins already, I think that playing away from home so often has taught this team a few things and we believe that defense, rebound, and character travel.”
UCI has now won 65 of their last 68 games when holding their opponents to 60 points or less and 63 of their last 70 when they hold the opposition to below 40 percent shooting.
The ‘Eaters continue their conference hunt on the road Thursday night as they travel to the Thunderdome against UC Santa Barbara for 7:00 p.m. tipoff. UCI will be back to the Bren next Saturday when they host Cal State Fullerton for a 5:00 p.m. showdown to be televised on ESPN3.