Never in the Big West Conference’s 48-year-old history has the outright regular season championship come down to the very last day.
Saturday evening’s championship deciding game pitted the UC Irvine men’s basketball team against UC Davis, a team who had previously beat them 74-65 at the Pavilion on Jan. 28. This time around, however, the ‘Eaters played in the Bren Events Center, hosting their Senior Day, and demonstrated a championship effort by defeating the Aggies 79-49 to capture their third regular season title in four years.
“We did it,” said head coach Russell Turner. “Being at your best when your best is needed is championship quality. Our guys were that today, it was a great college basketball environment, and I’m just proud of my team and this program.”
Before the showdown, seniors Luke Nelson, Jaron Martin, and Ioannis Dimakopoulos were honored for their four years in the basketball program as they will be remembered for their role in the team’s first ever berth to the NCAA Tournament back in 2015.
“I’m proud to have been here for four years,” said Nelson. “I wouldn’t say I’m upset because I know we’re not done yet so maybe I’ll think about those things once the season is over but hopefully it won’t be anytime soon.”
Nelson shined in front of a capacity crowd of 4,384 and scored a game high 29 points (10-17 FG, 7-11 3FG) while grabbing five rebounds. Nelson’s seven threes were a career high for him. Martin and Dimakopoulos chipped in with 10 and six points respectively.
“I feel like Luke made his statement about who should be the player of the year in the conference,” said Turner. “I’m happy for him that he was able to do that but I’m not at all surprised. He has had an incredibly difficult year dealing with adversity and injury and wanted badly to be in this position. He played at an outstanding level [tonight].”
The key to the ‘Eaters’ success in the contest was their defensive intensity as they held the Aggies to just 31.3 percent from the floor and 20 percent from beyond the arc. The Aggies even struggled from the free throw line as they went six for 22 from the charity stripe.
Irvine kpet Davis scoreless for a nine-minute spurt in the first half to allow them to blow up the lead and never look back. UCI shot 45.9 percent in the game and converted on 56 percent of their shots from deep. The ‘Eaters outrebounded the Aggies 50-36 in the contest with freshman forward Tommy Rutherford leading in that department with 11 of his own. Rutherford also scored eight points as the ‘Eater bench outscored the Aggies’ 29-18.
It was all ‘Eaters in the first half as they stifled the Aggie offense and held them to just 28.1 percent shooting. After conceding the first basket of the game to the Aggies, UCI’s senior trio went on a 12-0 run to give the ‘Eaters a double-digit lead that would exist for the remainder of the game. Davis could not find the bottom of the net and scored only three points in the game’s opening 10 minutes. The ‘Eaters led by as many as 22 and coasted to a 41-23 lead at halftime. The second half was more of the same with the ‘Eaters going up as many as 31 points to secure their title win and having the opportunity to give Nelson, Martin, and Dimakopoulos a curtain call to receive a standing ovation from family and fans in attendance. UCI ends the regular season with a 19-13 overall record and a 12-4 finish to conference play.
“We’re going to enjoy this game and accomplishment until study hall tomorrow and then focus clearly on the next challenge which is three games in three days,” said Turner. “We’ve been preparing the whole season with the idea that that’s what we’ve got to be able to do and that is part of the reason why we’ve worked hard to develop our depth and our identity.”
With the win, the ‘Eaters capture the first seed in the conference tournament on Thursday and are set to face eighth seeded UC Riverside in the 6 o’clock game at the Honda Center.