Senior guard Luke Nelson was given the tough assignment of defending fellow preseason all-conference guard Tre’ Coggins — who had just come off scoring a season-high 34 points against Cal Poly last Thursday and is leading the Big West Conference with 19.3 points per game.
Saturday night in the Bren Events Center, however, was Nelson’s night, as he held Coggins without a field goal (0-10) for the entirety of the contest and scored his own season best of 20 points to lead the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (11-9, 4-0) to a 87-67 victory over Cal State Fullerton. With his 20 points, Nelson is now the 12th all time scorer in the Anteater record books with 1,301 points scored.
“He had a big game with 34 points just the other day, so the focus was to not let him get going. I was just trying to use my length on him and trying to disrupt his jump shot, because he’s a hell of a shooter as, we all know,” said Nelson. “It wasn’t just me. Knowing I had help behind me, I knew to push out to contest shots so it was definitely a team effort on him.”
The team effort did not focus only on Coggins, as the ‘Eaters were able to put the clamps down on the Titan (8-9, 2-2) offense and hold them to 37.3 percent shooting for the game.
“I thought that our guys were locked into our game plan,” said head coach Russell Turner. “What was most satisfying to me was that we were excellent in both our man-to-man and in our zone [defenses], and we had, throughout our roster, a very strong game plan.”
UCI themselves shot a collective 62.3 percent from the floor with 48 of their points coming from inside the paint. Senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos was the aggressor in the post as he finished with 19 points and five rebounds.
“You’ve got to single out Dimakopoulos for setting the tone in this game and being a guy that they could not stop.” said Turner. “I thought that they had a real hard time with him, both when they single covered him and when they doubled him, and I thought that he made good decisions and plays. That’s what we expect him to do when we we think we have an advantage with his ability there.”
Effective on both sides of the court was sophomore forward Brandon Smith — who registered a season-high nine points, five rebounds and three steals. Helping Dimakopoulos in the trenches was sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway, who posted five points, eight rebounds and two blocks. UCI won the battle of the boards once again, this time out-rebounding the Titans 37-25. The ‘Eaters held the lead for the entire game and were able to remain as the only team in the conference with a perfect 4-0 record in front of a boisterous crowd of 2,468 fans.
UCI jumped to a 6-0 run to begin the first half getting their early dose of second chance points with their activity on the glass. Fullerton would trim the lead to just two points, but a free throw from Galloway and back-to-back three point shots from Nelson propelled the ‘Eaters’ 21-3 run as they earned a 20-point advantage. The Titans failed to get any offense working in the first period, shooting 28.6 percent from the floor, but they cashed in on 15 of 18 free throws to amount to more than half of their points. The ‘Eater lead was as many as 22 points, but a 7-0 run cut the deficit for the Titans to 15 with 1:18 left in the half. A running layup with the clock running down by senior guard Jaron Martin fell through for the ‘Eaters and netted them a 45-28 lead heading into the break.
Right when the ‘Eater lead began to feel safe, the Titans used an 11-0 run to bring the deficit to just 12 points. In efforts to prevent any comeback attempts, coach Turner subbed in his seniors, and both a layup from Dimakopoulos and a three from Nelson revitalized the ‘Eater offense. UCI used a 9-0 spurt to go back up by 20 which, blossomed into a 18-5 run that gave the ‘Eaters their largest lead of the night at 24 points with 2:39 left in the contest. The ‘Eaters shot a lights out 71 percent from the floor in the second half that allowed them to cruise to a victory over their Orange County neighbors.
“I like to win every possession, but to Fullerton’s credit, they fought and they made a run, and that’s going to happen. I thought that happened in tonight’s game when I had a bunch of young players on the floor, and then when I went back to our veterans, we regained the control of the game,” said Turner. “I’m pleased that we withstood that. There have been a lot of teams who have come back from 20 down in college basketball this year, so I thought that we maintained our focus on continuing to play, and that’s what we need to do.”
In their first four Big West conference games, the ‘Eaters have won by an average of 16.8 points and garnered a 53.6 shooting percentage.
“We know that the hardest thing to handle in college basketball is success, and that’s what I challenge my team with,” said Turner. “We’re young, we’re hungry and hopefully we’re committed to improving. I know I am, and I think our seniors are, and what I sense is that our young guys are learning the ways we do things.”
The ‘Eaters will be on the road for their next two games as they travel to Cal Poly on Wednesday and CSUN on Saturday looking to keep their six-game win streak alive and rolling into conference play.