After suffering their first conference loss of the season, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team had no choice but to regroup quickly as they were set to face UC Davis in a battle that would cement the sole leader in the Big West.
Inability to keep the Aggies (13-8, 5-1) off the free throw line and struggling to score in the second half would amount to a 74-65 loss Saturday night for the ‘Eaters — their second loss since starting 6-0 in conference play. The ‘Eaters (13-11, 6-2) were once again without Luke Nelson, who missed his 18th game of the season.
Despite the loss, freshman guard Eyassu Worku scored a team high 18 points, while freshman forward Tommy Rutherford earned his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, plus adding four blocks. Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway continued his strong effort on the glass by grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds for the second straight game.
Davis, which has the number one defense in the conference, held UCI to 32.4 percent shooting in the second half, which allowed the Aggies to go on a 10-0 run to open the period. UCI did manage to score more field goals than UCD (25-18), but the Aggies scored nearly half of their total points from the free throw line (35-46) — 22 of those coming in the second half.
For the Aggies, junior forward Chima Moneke led all scorers with 22 points on seven of 12 shooting and registered nine rebounds.
With 6:49 remaining in the first quarter, the ‘Eaters held a 29-11 lead over the Aggies. In front of a crowd of 3,574, the Aggies went on a 16-4 run to chip away at the ‘Eater lead and narrow the deficit to 33-27 at the half. The opening spurt by the Aggies in the second half gave them a 37-33 lead, with a little over three minutes into the period. With full momentum on their side, the Aggies extended their lead to double digits with two minutes left in the game and coasted to knock the ‘Eaters off and remain the only team in conference to be unbeaten at home.
With the loss, the ‘Eaters drop down to second place in the conference and have a week’s rest before making the trek to the Walter Pyramid to face rival Long Beach State (9-14, 4-3). The game will have an 8 p.m. tipoff and will be broadcast on ESPNU.