UC Irvine baseball clinched their weekend series against No. 1 TCU at Anteater Ballpark. UC Irvine men’s volleyball snapped No. 1 Ohio State’s 42 match win-streak in Columbus, OH. And to cap off what would have been one of the best day’s in UCI Athletics history, the top-seeded UC Irvine men’s basketball team had the opportunity to capture a Big West Tournament championship against second seeded UC Davis Saturday night at the Honda Center.
Instead, with the 79-49 loss in the regular season finale still fresh in their minds, the Aggies played with a deeper aggression on defense and upended the ‘Eaters to earn their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament with a 50-47 victory in front of 5,085 in attendance.
“Congratulations to UC Davis for a hard fought win … I’m happy for them. I’m disappointed for us,” said head coach Russell Turner. “We didn’t play our best game but a lot of that has to do with Davis and the guys I got in my locker room are really disappointed in our inability to finish the game.”
Both teams struggled in contest with Irvine shooting 38 percent and Davis converting on 34.6 percent of their shots. The ‘Eaters committed 20 total turnovers (13 in the first half) and, for the second time this season, scored under 50 points. Eight different ‘Eaters turned the ball over in the matchup in which the Aggies converted into 11 points of their own.
Senior guards Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson were stifled by the Aggie defense as Martin was held to just three points on the night and Nelson, who although led the ‘Eaters in scoring with 14, shot six for 16 from the floor and two for seven from deep.
“They were physical and aggressive, the way championship basketball is often played and I give them credit for that,” said Turner. “I thought that in addition to the 13 turnovers, we had four or five really bad shots that were hurried or rushed. We didn’t play very well on offense but I thought we would be able to come back in the game … and give us a chance to win.”
Freshman forward Tommy Rutherford, who was key in the ‘Eaters’ late push, finished with 11 points (5-6 FG) and five rebounds. Senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos ended the night with points on three for eight shooting.
For the Aggies, senior guard Brynton Lemar had a game-high 20 points (13 in the second half) while tournament MVP Chima Moneke posted nine points, seven rebounds, and three blocks.
It was an ugly first half with both teams failing to shoot under 35 percent from the floor. The ‘Eaters cold to open the game, going 6-23 in the opening period, as they were held scoreless for the first six minutes but were only down 6-0. Irvine would cut the deficit to just one on a 6-0 run capped off by Martin’s only bucket in the contest but the Aggies responded with a 12-5 spurt of their own to go back on top by eight and eventually garner a 24-16 lead at halftime.
The ‘Eaters managed to put the clamps on defense to begin the second half and hold the Aggies to just four points for nearly eight minutes. With that, the ‘Eaters would grab the lead with a 13-4 run at 29-28. UCI grabbed their largest lead of the night with a little under six minutes left in game at 40-35 — fueled by Rutherford’s eight second half points.
“Tommy Rutherford is like a lot of our guys. I love that kid for how hard he plays the game, how much he goes after it, and puts his heart and soul in there,” said Turner. “I think that kid’s future is incredibly bright and I’m really happy that he’s an Anteater and I’m proud to be his coach.”
Irvine kept their five point lead at 42-37 off free throws from Dimakopoulos with 4:09 remaining to play until Davis rallied with a 9-0 run — five of those points coming from the free throw line. Moneke made a trip to the charity stripe but failed to convert on both of his free throws and a post bucket by Dimakopoulos cut the deficit to 46-44 with 39.9 left in the game. The ball was given to Lemar, who scored 11 of Davis’ last 13 points, as he continued to drive in on the ‘Eater interior and got his shot goal-tended by sophomore forward Brandon Smith to give the Aggies a 48-44 lead with 13 seconds left. Nelson proceeded to hit his biggest shot of the night from beyond the arc to make it a 48-47 game with 7.3 left the clock but Lemar would head to the free throw line again and sink them both to put his team up by three. Nelson managed to advance the ball to the ‘Eater side of the court and called a timeout with 2.2 seconds left to draw up a play to force overtime. But it was Davis’ turn to go to the NCAA tournament for the first time in their program history as they did not allow the ‘Eaters to get a shot off and ultimately ended the ‘Eaters chances of going dancing again.
“I was a little bit surprised at a couple of the foul calls that went against us coming down the stretch,” said Turner. “Given the way the game was played, I felt like we got some tough breaks there in the end but I’m not blaming the officials at our loss. That’s what happens when you don’t make any shots, not enough to win.”
“I feel like our team is a team of closers with experience and I expected at that point that we would be able to win with a five point lead with four minutes left. Typically we have been able to defend in those situations well enough to maintain our lead and tonight we weren’t able to do that.”
The ‘Eaters will have to settle with the NIT postseason tournament, earned through their regular season championship feat, with the first round starting March 14th and 15th with the locations yet to be decided.
“It’s hard to feel excited as maybe one should to have the opportunity to now play in the NIT,” said Turner. “I know that that is a great tournament..What I hope is that our guys will appreciate the opportunity to play together again. We’ll get over this disappointment. That’s what you have to do when you risk everything and come up short, you have to be men and gather yourselves and get ready to go again. That’s what we’re going to do and we’ll play a spirited game in the NIT and I look forward to see who our opponent will be in it.”