After suffering two consecutive conference losses, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team had a week’s rest to work out some kinks before facing rival Long Beach State to a sellout crowd of 4,213 at the Walter Pyramid Saturday night.
Unfortunately for the ‘Eaters, the woes continued as they struggled to score against the 49er defense all night and, as a result, dropped a 72-63 loss to make it their third straight in Big West play.
Irvine (13-12, 6-3) was unable to find an identity on the offensive end in the first half and shot a mere 28 percent that carried over into the second period. The ‘Eaters would rally at times during the contest but could not get stops when they mattered as the 49ers (10-15, 5-4) shot 44.7 percent on the night and converted four of their five three pointers in the second half to halt UCI’s comeback attempts.
“Credit to Long Beach, I thought they played a high level game and were a big part of the reason we didn’t make shots,” said head coach Russell Turner. “They were a lot better against us tonight than they’ve been at times and I think a lot of that is on them. They played with a better level and edge than we did.”
Senior guard Luke Nelson made his first appearance after three games of sitting out, nursing the same hamstring that caused him to miss 18 of 24 games this season, and led the ‘Eaters in scoring with 17 points in his 23 minutes played. Nelson scored 13 of his points in the second half but overall could not get on a streak- going six for 15 from the floor and one for six beyond the arc.
“We were managing his minutes and that’s been a tough thing for us,” said coach Turner. “We haven’t been able to play with him in games very much this year. I am not unhappy with his play, I thought he took care of the ball which is important for him and for us.”
Fellow seniors Jaron Martin (2-11 FG) and Ioannis Dimakopoulos did not help to the ‘Eaters’ shooting slump, posting just six and four points respectively.
One of the main reasons the ‘Eaters shot poorly from the floor was their inability to find a presence inside. UCI tied with Long Beach State in points in the paint (24-24) but shot 36.5 percent for the entire game.
“The story of the game is probably that we were unable to establish inside at all and that is to Long Beach’s credit. I expected we would be able to be better than that but they double teamed in the post,” said coach Turner. “We made some good plays off those double teams but we also made some turnovers in the first half that contributed to their run and I thought that they affected us with their aggressiveness there.”
With the loss, the ‘Eaters now sit at second place in the conference behind UC Davis (14-9, 6-2) and atop CSUN (10-13, 6-4) right behind them.
“I feel like that’s been the case for three games in a row, we let our opponents be the more aggressive team and we have to figure out how to get the edge we were playing with,” said coach Turner. “We lost a little bit of that spark, our toughness, and our team has been soft these last three games.”
Both teams came out the gate with slow starts with the ‘Eaters particularly scoring their first basket five minutes into the period – missing their first eight shots. For Long Beach, junior guard Justin Bibbins capitalized on the ‘Eaters’ seven miscues by scoring 11 of his 14 total points in the first half. The 49ers would use a 10-3 run to go up by double digits and flourish on the ‘Eaters’ shooting woes (7-25 FG). Long Beach went up as many as 15 points but Irvine’s three point shooting helped close the gap in the closing minutes of the period. Back to back threes from senior guard Jaron Martin and sophomore forward Brandon Smith cut the deficit to six points with 2:45 remaining and a closing 10-2 run brought the 49er lead down to five, 32-28.
Beginning the second half, the ‘Eaters managed to tie the score at 34 all but the 49ers continued on an 11-0 run to reclaim their lead. The ‘Eaters retaliated and went on a 21-6 spurt of their own to get their only lead of the night at 52-51 with 6:44 left in the game. A three point shot by Long Beach junior guard Evan Payne, who led all scorers with 19 points, gave the 49ers the lead for good as that bolster a 7-0 run. A bucket from Nelson with 3:02 remaining cut the deficit to just two points but the Beach were able to secure the victory at the free throw line a successfully tie the season series at one apiece.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway had a near double-double with nine points and a game-high eight rebounds. Sophomore forward Brandon Smith also chipped in nine points while freshman guard Max Hazzard earned eight points and a pair of steals.
The ‘Eaters will return to the Bren Events Center on Wednesday to host UC Santa Barbara (3-18, 1-8) before making the trip to Hawai’i (11-11, 5-4) next weekend.