UC Irvine men’s basketball (3-4) split a pair of games to conclude the 2017 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational in the city’s Orleans Arena, dropping to Rider (5-1) on Thanksgiving Day before powering back against Northern Arizona (0-6) just 16 hours later.
The ‘Eaters wrapped up their full serving of basketball on the holiday weekend in the Pauley Pavilion Sunday afternoon, where they faced off against an undefeated Bruins team (5-0).
UCI suited up and spent Turkey Day on the Orleans Arena floor where they dropped a competitive one against Rider University, 90-82.
Five players hit double-digit scoring in the losing effort with redshirt sophomore guard Max Hazzard pacing the team with 13 points on 50 percent shooting. Sophomore forward John Edgar Jr. contributed 12, as junior guard Brandon Smith broke out with a season high 11 off the bench. Sophomore guard Evan Leonard and sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford, who was limited to just 16 minutes with four fouls, each added 10.
Collectively, the ‘Eaters made near half their shots with a 49.2 field goal percentage and also drained 40.9 percent from three-point range. With these numbers, UCI actually topped their counterparts who shot a 47.5 field goal percentage and also 40.9 from downtown.
The slight edge, then, came in early in the second half when Rider pushed out on a momentous 9-2 run which would eventually earn them their largest lead of the game at 15 on a free throw, 69-55. The Broncs kept their distance as the ‘Eaters made a great effort to chase down their counterparts. A triple from Leonard with 1:44 remaining cut the deficit to single digits as a Rutherford lay-in brought UCI within five but the Broncs would shake the ‘Eaters off their backs and gallop to the finish line.
Riders made it rain from the outside to crack open the first half, cashing in eight quick points on two triples and a jumper to take a 8-2 lead.
UCI, however, would stop the run and slowly claw their way back. With plenty of time left, sophomore center Brad Greene, who checked in early after Rutherford had drawn two fouls within the first two minutes of action, cleaned up a missed layup and put it back up to shave Rider’s lead in half, 9-6.
For every step that the ‘Eaters got closer, the Broncs would move two steps ahead. Even as UCI went on a 13-2 run that was capped by a pair of free throws from starting sophomore guard Eyassu Worku to close the deficiency to two, a Rider buzzer beater would take the teams to the lockers with the score at 40-36.
Redshirt freshman guard Jordan Allen, who ended up finishing the game with 19 points, lead the Broncs’ efforts in the opening half with 11 points going 50 percent from the field and 60 from three.
While Allen controlled the first half, his fellow first-year teammate Fredrick Scott took over in the second, going for 18 of his 22 points in 15 minutes to hold off the ‘Eaters and secure the game at 90-82.
Roughly 16 hours after tipping off against Rider, the ‘Eaters were back in Orleans Arena to face Northern Arizona for an early 11 a.m. start.
The ‘Eaters showed signs of such weariness, getting off to an initially slow start before springing up in the second half to top the Lumberjacks, 77-71.
Worku and Hazzard put in a combined 25-point effort, 13 and 12 respectively, for team-high honors as Edgar Jr. went for nine followed by Rutherford who added eight.
Redshirt junior Elston Jones, who sat out of a few games early on in the season, played a large role in finding easy looks in the paint, coming up with seven points and seven rebounds. Jones, along with UCI’s other big men, battled hard below the basket, earning an advantage in points from within the key, 34-18, as well as a slight edge in rebounding, 35-33.
When the ‘Eaters failed to register a single point for the first three minutes of play, the Lumberjacks came rolling out with 10 unanswered.
Edgar Jr. snapped the dry spell with a triple, but the Lumberjacks would re-establish a 10-point gap on four other occasions and would go on to have the upper hand at 24-11, their largest lead of the night, with a 10:32 to spare before the half.
UCI kept plugging away and although the Lumberjacks would still rout the ‘Eaters by the half, Jones came alive to help dig into the deficit, which dropped to one at one point on a Jones’ tap in, and the score would be 37-31.
Getting over their slow start, the ‘Eaters appeared revitalized in the latter end of the game. While UCI did shoot modestly in the first half, they went lights out with their perimeter shooting for the final 20 minutes, connecting on 55.6 of their attempts from beyond the arc and 51.7 percent collectively.
After a Leonard three-pointer brought the ‘Eaters within one, 41-40, a Worku trey knotted the game up 43 apiece with 12:58 remaining. Leonard and Worku’s treys, however, would not have come without the defensive effort of the ‘Eaters who allowed just six points for nearly 12 minutes of action as they mounted their steady run.
On the next possession, Smith got his hand on a steal that lead Leonard in a breakaway for an easy two to give the ‘Eaters their first lead of the night, 45-43.
Despite struggling to establish runs easily as they had in the first, Northern Arizona did not let off and kept close to the ‘Eaters. By the 5:56 minute mark, the Lumberjacks were down by just two, 56-54.
Greene elongated the lead with a pair of free throws that Edgar Jr. padded with a triple push the ‘Eaters out front by seven. While it was not necessarily a secure lead, Northern Arizona began fighting against the clock.
Redeeming his early foul troubles against Rider, Rutherford stayed in it Friday, coming up big with a tip-in and an emphatic slam with a little under two minutes and half remaining in regulation.
Without a major run out of the Lumberjacks, UCI took care of the ball the rest of the way to take their final game at Las Vegas, 77-71.
At press time, the ‘Eaters ventured back to Southern California to face UCLA Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.