Having come off a dominant 105-73 victory against CSUN this past Saturday, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team seemed to be in a class of their own. Thursday night against Cal Poly, however, the ‘Eaters received a wake-up call that very little following the Big West Conference could have ever expected.
Thursday night’s matchup pitted the top team in the conference, who were on their highest win streak in 11 years, against a team who were on a 10 game losing streak and were winless in conference. Cal Poly (6-14, 1-5) seemed to have learned from their first encounter in San Luis Obispo, where the ‘Eaters handled the Mustangs 70-48, and cracked the Anteater code by defeating UCI 79-66 in the Bren Events Center.
The ‘Eaters (13-10, 6-1) played an uncharacteristic game as they were forced to shoot from the outside (5-20 3FG), were beaten in bench production (21-16) and points in the paint (36-24), and allowed the opposition to shoot over 50 percent (52.6 percent).
“Give credit to Cal Poly. They played at a high level tonight and outperformed us in both the offensive end and defensive end,” said head coach Russell Turner. “They were more physical than we were, quicker to lose balls, and just made more plays to us. They deserved to win, as frustrating as that is for me, and I congratulate their performance to beat us.”
UCI only led for 2:32 seconds in the contest and was chasing the Mustangs throughout the game. Cal Poly junior guard Victor Joseph led all scorers with 22 points and helped bolster a Mustang offense early into the game. Those who also scored double digits for the Mustangs were sophomore guard Donovan Fields, senior guard Ridge Shipley, and junior forward Luke Meikle – who all scored 15, 12, and 10 points respectively.
The ‘Eaters were once again without Luke Nelson (hamstring) as he missed his 17th game of the season. The only player that tried to fill the void offensively of Nelson was senior guard Jaron Martin – who scored 20 points and led a second half surge that gave the ‘Eaters the lead momentarily. Despite the loss, the ‘Eaters did win the battle of the boards as they outrebounded the Mustangs 37-32 with sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway pulling down 13 of his own.
Irvine would score the opening points of the contest before falling to an 19-11 deficit nearly seven minutes into the game. The Mustangs came out hot, converting all of their first nine shots, as Joseph scored all of his first half points in the opening 10 minutes.
The ‘Eaters would respond with an 8-2 run to cut the lead to just two points but wouldn’t manage to take back the lead until freshman guard Max Hazzard capped off a 9-1 spurt and put the ‘Eaters up briefly at 30-29. Cal Poly immediately responded with a desperation three-pointer that went off the glass and in and secured a narrow 36-35 lead at halftime.
After Cal Poly padded their lead to six points to begin the second period, Martin fueled a 14-4 run to give the ‘Eaters a 49-45 edge with 13:38 remaining in the game. In that spurt, Martin converted on six consecutive shots as he scored more than half his points in the period. As soon as it looked like the ‘Eaters would take their foot off the gas, the Mustangs capitalized and went on an 11-0 run to take the lead for good. A 15-2 run with a little over two minutes left put the nail in the coffin for the ‘Eaters as they suffered their first loss in conference play.
“It almost felt like when we got ahead for that short period in the second half it was almost like we thought that they were going to go away and we weren’t going to have to compete and play and make the plays and that is disappointing,” said coach Turner. “I didn’t think that we played very well in defending the perimeter and I know we didn’t play at all defending the basket and we’ve had a shot-blocking presence at the rim that, tonight, was absent, and that’s disappointing,”
The ‘Eaters, who still are the top team in the Big West, will hit the road to face the number two team in the conference in UC Davis (12-8, 4-1) on Saturday before a week break of competition.