Following a rigorous holiday road trip where the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (4-5) fielded three games in four days, the ‘Eaters returned home to the Bren Events Center and took care of business against Whittier (1-4) with a 112-65 victory over their division III opponents.
“It’s good to be home,” head coach Russell Turner said of his team’s return to Irvine Wednesday night. “The schedule for us is a grind when we have to play as many games on the road as we have to play…so it’s nice to be home and it was good to play this type of game tonight and feel good about a balanced performance where a lot of guys had good offensive plays.”
It was a balanced scoring night for UCI with six different ‘Eaters scoring in double figures. Sophomore guard Evan Leonard and sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford paced UCI with 16 points apiece.
“It felt really good to back at home finally,” Leonard said. “We had a really tough road trip…we didn’t win as many games as we wanted to but we knew we had to come into this game knowing the opponent that we had and just coming in and try to get better.”
Off the bench, sophomore guard Eyassu Worku registered 14 points on 6-7 shooting to go along with seven assists as fellow second-year guard John Edgar Jr. had 12 points on 50 percent shooting. Sophomore guard Darrian Traylor and freshman sharpshooter Justin Wertner added 11 points apiece with Wertner going for a flawless statline at 3-3 from the floor (2-2 from three).
UCI was highly on the offensive end, shooting a collective 62.1 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three and 67.9 percent from the line.
The ‘Eaters outshot the Poets, 58.6-37.5 percent from the floor and 38.5-36.8 from beyond the arc.
Worku and Edgar Jr. came off the bench to lead the team with a combined 18 first half points, 10 and eight respectively.
Many of the ‘Eaters points came with the apparent size advantage from within the paint with 22 coming right from underneath the basket. UCI also got Whittier into some foul trouble, drawing 11 from the Poets and cashing in on 10 of 14 opportunities at the line.
Meanwhile, Whittier attempted to counter from the outside, knocking down seven triples, four of which came from sophomore guard Joey Toyama.
When the Poets’ shots stopped falling, the ‘Eaters made a major 9-0 run that would help them head into the half leading by 16, 49-33.
While the ‘Eaters continued to execute on the offensive end, Whittier battled to start the second with a number of triples, matching basket for basket with UCI until coach Turner called a time-out and drew the team’s attention towards their defensive effort.
“The challenge that I gave to my team was that we have to be more committed defending and rebounding than what I feel like we’ve been in lots of stretches this season,” coach Turner said. “Everybody wants to talk about offensive plays and young players think more about offensive plays but what I know is that an uncommon commitment to defense and the boards is what leads to championships…and we still have to get that worked out entirely.”
From that stoppage on, the ‘Eaters held the Poets scoreless for over seven minutes of action while extending their lead to 34, 89-55.
“Especially at half time…coach really got into us [because] we gave up a lot of points,” Leonard said. “Obviously coming out [of the second half] the emphasis was defense and when you play good defense that leads to really easy offense and that’s definitely what happened tonight.”
Senior guard Teo Davidian put the finishing touches on the night with a few baskets, finishing with seven points in the final few minutes to close the game out 112-65.
Picking up the victory over Whittier, UCI will return to the Bren Saturday at 7:00pm where they will be tested against Nevada, a program that saw NCAA tournament play last year and has gone 7-0 thus far in the season.
“That match up is a great challenge,” coach Turner said of the upcoming game Saturday. “Nevada is playing at a similar level to UCLA and Arizona State and Kansas State…the teams that we’ve recently played on the road. The difference on Saturday is that we’re playing at home and what I hope is that we’ll have some energy from this community, from our students that can propel our team a little bit. Nevada is a team that is playing for what they hope is an at-large bid to the tournament so this is a big game for them like it is for us. They’re more veteran but maybe we’re deeper and hopefully we could have an energy advantage. It’s going to be fun to see our young team compete in that environment.”