Something had to give at Wednesday night’s Big West conference matchup between the UC Irvine men’s basketball team, who had lost three straight in league play, and a team who had lost six games in a row in UC Santa Barbara.
It was the ‘Eaters (14-12, 7-3) who were able to snap their three-game skid, as they defeated the Gauchos 64-47 in front of 1,759 at the Bren Events Center. Both teams struggled to produce on offense, with the ‘Eaters besting the Gauchos’ percentage 41.7 to 34.5. Irvine’s defense allowed them to go on runs and ultimately secure them at second place in the conference — half a game behind UC Davis (15-9, 7-2).
“We have the number one offense in our conference right now, but if we defend at the level that we did tonight, then we can win comfortably, and that’s what I expect our team to do,” said head coach Russell Turner. “I know people who read newspapers just want to talk offense, but I like the way we defended and rebounded tonight. I like how our big guys set the tone and dominated today.”
Three ‘Eaters scored in double figures in the contests, with senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos leading the way with 15 points off six for seven shooting. Dimakopoulos had recently come off a couple of inconsistent games after earning his Conference Player of the Week nod, putting up 10 points in the last two contests.
“I thought Ioannis got going with his jump shot tonight,” said Turner. “What I expect him to do for us is to establish himself on the interior to be a force that teams have to make tough decisions about. When he is the best version of what he can be for us, we’re a different level team, and there were times tonight when he was that. I expect him to continue to stay focused on what we need him to do.”
Senior guard Luke Nelson followed up with a well-rounded performance, registering 11 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Earning his first double-double, sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway posted 10 points and 10 rebounds. Galloway is second in the conference in rebounds, averaging 7.3 a game.
For the Gauchos, junior forward Alex Hart notched a career-high 16 points on a perfect 7-7 clip. Santa Barbara was without junior guard Gabe Vincent, who suffered a season-ending injury in the game against Cal State Fullerton a week ago.
Collectively, the ‘Eaters outboarded the Gauchos 46-30 and held a 34-22 advantage in scoring in the paint. The ‘Eaters managed to hold the Gauchos to just 18 first half points and led for the entirety of the night. UCI’s second unit outscored the Gaucho bench 25-18, with freshman forward Tommy Rutherford registering seven points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
The ‘Eaters showed some comfort being back at home, as they opened up the game with a 12-2 run fueled by their bench — posting seven of their first 12 points. UCSB would not let up and went on a 9-0 run of their own, holding the ‘Eaters scoreless for five minutes, cutting the deficit to just two. A three-point shot by Nelson stopped the bleeding and put the ‘Eaters back in the driver’s seat for the rest of the half as they closed the period with an 11-4 run. Dimakopoulos scored five of his nine first half points in the final two minutes to pace the ‘Eaters to a 27-18 advantage at intermission.
Santa Barbara shot a better percentage in the second half, 42.9, but they could not overcome Irvine’s lead. The ‘Eaters would lead by as many as 21 in the closing period and cruised to a victory they needed to stay in the race and defend their regular season championship.
“That game was very important for us, having coming from three losses in a row. We needed to pick it up, and [there’s] not a better place to pick it up than home court,” said Dimakopoulos. “Always having a good offensive performance is nice and important, but offense is not the key to winning a championship. We can win a game with our offense, but in order for us to win a championship, then we have to continue to play better defense.”
The ‘Eaters will make the annual trip to Honolulu this weekend as they face Hawai’i on Saturday for a 9:30 p.m. tipoff at the Stan Sheriff Center.