With UC Davis losing both of their games last week, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team were in prime position to take sole possession of the Big West Conference with a Saturday night matchup against UC Riverside.
Behind a stellar performance by senior guard Jaron Martin (26 points off six of nine threes) and a career night by freshman guard Eyassu Worku (20 points), the ‘Eaters (16-12, 9-3) defeated the Highlanders 79-60 in front of 1,860 in the Bren Events Center.
Martin, who had struggled in UCI’s last three contests where he scored only 15 points and going four of 25 from the field in that span, found his rhythm and helped elevate an ‘Eater offense that had struggles early on. Martin also notched four assists and three rebounds while shooting 59 percent in the game.
“It’s always nice when the ball goes in the basket and I think my teammates really helped me in that area tonight,” said Martin. “There are games where the ball doesn’t go in, and it happens. I think what I did today was that I kept shooting and as long as I kept my mind to it they fell down.”
Worku fueled Irvine’s strong play from the perimeter by converting on all eight of his shots — two of those coming from deep. The ‘Eaters bench ended up outscoring the Highlanders’ 28-21. Worku added five assists and two rebounds to his scoring total.
“He was great not only on the offensive end but I thought he was really active on defense,” said head coach Russell Turner. “He makes effort plays to rebound and knock the ball loose and he was as good tonight as I expect him to be. I’m happy for him with that performance.”
Rounding out the guard play for the ‘Eaters was senior Luke Nelson who scored 14 points with three assists and two rebounds. The trio of Martin, Worku, and Nelson contributed 60 of the ‘Eaters’ 79 total points for the night.
“We had three guards who played pretty well,” said Turner.”We were really good offensively in our perimeter positions. Jaron, Luke, and Eyassu all shot the ball exceptionally well and when that happens for us we can get on offensive runs like we did. I thought it was our defense and hustle plays that created those runs that got us back into the game when we were down.”
The ‘Eaters finished the game shooting 51.7 percent from the floor while holding the Highlanders (7-17, 5-8) to just 36.4. Irvine held the advantage in the paint (24-16) and shot 64.3 percent in the second half to add to their lead and put Riverside out of reach.
Irvine struggled to produce offensively in the first half as they fell to a 15-5 deficit nine minutes into the game — making only two of their first 15 shots. The ‘Eaters continued to battle and forced six first half Highlander turnovers, that converted to nine points in their favor, to go on a 9-2 run to grab their first lead of the night at 25-24. The run turned into a 15-4 spurt to close out the half that was capped off by a Martin three point shot at the buzzer. With 3.3 seconds left in the first period, freshman center Brad Greene rifled a pass from inbounds to an open freshman forward Tommy Rutherford who then passed the ball to Martin for a contested heave beyond the arc to give the ‘Eaters a 31-26 lead at intermission.
“I didn’t think that we were moving the ball well in [in the first half]. Riverside is a good defensive team and I think that there are times with our team where we are affected by the fact that a team looks different in the game then what we look like in practice and that’s one of the places where our youth shows up,” said Turner. “That has happened to us in a couple of games but you got to go through those experiences to improve.”
UCI opened up the second half with a 21-6 run to go up by 20 and never look back. The Highlanders managed to cut the lead by 13 but the ‘Eaters cruised to victory to put them at first place in the conference ahead of UC Davis (16-11, 8-4) and Long Beach State (13-16, 8-5).
“We know where we are and we know what’s in front of us. It’s a 16 game championship and now it’s down to a four game championship.,” said Turner. “We have a little edge and it will be important for us to stay focused on what’s right in front of us. I thought our team, in the three games we lost, allowed some success to get into our heads. Every team in this league can beat us and I would say that if we play well we can beat every team in this league.”
The ‘Eaters have four games remaining in the regular season with their next game being on the road against cross county rival Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday at Titan Gym.