Getting their double-digit lead cut to just three with under ten minutes left to play, the first-seeded UC Irvine men’s basketball team were reminded to not overlook eighth seeded UC Riverside in their quarterfinal matchup of the Big West Conference Tournament Thursday night at the Honda Center.
Behind the senior duo of guards Luke Nelson and Jaron Martin, the ‘Eaters (20-13) would advance to the semifinals on a 76-67 victory over the Highlanders (7-21) and notched their fifth consecutive 20-win season — becoming the first team in the conference since Utah State from the 1999-2005 seasons.
“It was the type of game we expected in this tournament,” said head coach Russell Turner. “I think we didn’t shoot the three well in this game so we had a hard time making the explosive run offensive run that we can sometimes make and credit to that goes to [UC Riverside] but we did defend, and we did rebound, and we’re going to win ugly a lot of nights.”
Nelson and Martin shared duties bolstering the ‘Eater offense as Nelson scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half and Martin scored 17 of his 19 in the second. When UCI only led 53-50 after a Highlander 7-0 spurt, Martin went on to score nine of his points to fend off the upset.
“There was a lot of time left on the clock and I just wanted to lead, that’s my duty as a senior,” said Martin. “Getting these guys calmed down and trying to figure out the best way to win. Down the stretch, I knew I needed to score more and I just tried to do what I needed to do.”
Fresh off receiving the Big West Player of the Year Award, Nelson went 5-11 from the floor (7-8 FT) and posted five assists and five rebounds in the victory. The ‘Eaters are 13-2 when Nelson is in the lineup and he is averaging 22 points in his last seven games.
“They were trying to play me very aggressively so I have to learn to adjust, but keep playing my game,“ said Nelson. “ It was a team effort though. Together we moved the ball really well.”
Riverside had four of their players end the night in double-digits with senior forward Secean Johnson scoring a game high 22 points. Freshman guard Dikymbe Martin, junior guard Chance Murray, and sophomore center Menno Dijkstra pitched in the upset attempt with 12,11, and 10 points respectively.
Despite shooting a mere 21.7 percent from deep in the contest, the ‘Eaters showed up in the interior by outrebounding (45-28) and outscoring the Highlanders in the paint (28-22). Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway earned a game-high 13 rebounds and added eight points.The ‘Eaters shot 44.3 percent from the floor while the Highlanders put up 40.7 percent — including a 50 percent showing in the second half.
After a mull start, the ‘Eaters went on a 17-6 run to earn a 22-13 lead with nine minutes left in the first half. The Highlanders would scratch at the lead and go on a couple of small runs but the ‘Eaters ultimately went into halftime up 38-28. After Riverside cut the lead twice to three points midway through the second half, the ‘Eaters responded with a 15-6 run and played the free throw game to secure the win and advance to the semifinals of the tournament.
The ‘Eaters will face the winner of Long Beach State/Hawai’i in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Honda Center. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
“There is a familiarity with both opponents, so we’re just going to get ourselves ready and see who wins,” said Turner. “I think we know that any team in this league can beat us and we can beat any team remaining in this tournament. The teams that play the best here will be the teams that win. We’re in a good spot because I don’t think we’ll be the ones that will be making big adjustments. I think all the other teams are adjusting to us at this stage.”