With UC Davis (18-11, 10-4) taking a slight lead in the Big West Conference standings, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team’s Homecoming game against CSUN Saturday night had a little bit more meaning than welcoming alumni back to campus.
The ‘Eaters (17-13, 10-4) were tested by the Matadors but they ultimately squeezed out an 83-80 win in front of 4,234 at the Bren Events Center to put them in a first place tie with the Aggies.
“I’m pleased that we grinded out a tough win in a real good college basketball environment here with homecoming and a great crowd,” said head coach Russell Turner. “It was fun for our team and I was really impressed by my seniors’ leadership and performance that allowed us to win a tough game at the end of February.”
It was a tale of two halves as the ‘Eaters shot 57.1 percent in the first but only converted on 32 percent from the floor in the second — committing 15 total turnovers in the game. CSUN took advantage of Irvine’s miscues, making them into 17 points in their favor, to remain in the game and push the ‘Eaters up until the closing seconds.
“Some of the credit to [the turnovers] had to go to Northridge for making us uncomfortable but I thought that we had a number of unforced turnovers, turnovers that made us look nervous and look like we had a young team on the floor … which allowed Northridge to gain some momentum,” said Turner. “Our ball control has been good most of the season. It has to be, for us to win the kind of games we want to win. Tonight it wasn’t as good as it has been but to win a close game, when we had some of those problems, may be able to help us for what’s in front.”
Despite their troubles, the senior trio of Jaron Martin, Luke Nelson, and Ioannis Dimakopoulos scored in double figures for the ‘Eaters — 28, 22, and 12 respectively. Martin went six for 11 from beyond the arc that places him as sixth all-time in Anteater history with his 176 threes. Nelson, who made three of his six three point attempts, is now tied for most triples in UCI history with Michael Hunter’s (2006-2010) tally of 236.
The ‘Eaters held the Matadors to a poor 16.7 percent showing from deep and outrebounded them 37-27.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway, who is second in the conference in rebounds, had a strong presence inside against the Matadors as he notched a game high 12 rebounds and had two blocked shots to strengthen the aggression inside for the ‘Eaters.
“We always have that mindset to control the glass and tonight that was a huge emphasis on the game,” said Galloway. “Coach Turner told us we got outrebounded in the last game, got embarrassed, and we got to come out with a strong performance today, which we did.”
The Matadors (11-16, 7-7) also had three of their starters score in double digits with guards Kendall Smith, Darin Johnson , and Aaron Parks scoring 24, 19, and 13 respectively.
Irvine led for the entirety of the game and lead by as many as 11 points in the second half but CSUN cashed in from the free throw line (30-39) and forced turnovers to make it a one point game with 1:02 left in the contest. Dimakopoulos would be sent to the line with 38 seconds left on the clock and he hit both to put the ‘Eaters up by three. Parks went straight at Dimakopoulos in CSUN’s next possession and made both of his free throws to cut the ‘Eater lead to one again with four seconds remaining. The Matadors had no choice but to foul Martin in an inbounds play and he sunk both from the charity stripe to seal the victory to the ‘Eaters and keep them alive in the hunt for the regular season crown.
As the race towards the tournament heats on, the ‘Eaters will travel for their last road game of the regular season against UC Riverside on Wednesday before hosting Senior Night versus UC Davis on Saturday.
“It’s a tight conference and every game is obviously a championship game,” said freshman guard Eyassu Worku. “These next two games are really huge for us and are going to be indicators on how we do in the Big West Tournament.”