UC Irvine men’s basketball (4-6) was tested Saturday night at the Bren Events Center with a matchup against an undefeated Nevada (8-0) squad that is coming off of a showing in the national tournament last year while on pace to finish with their third consecutive 20 plus-win season this year.
Despite a major run late in the first half from the ‘Eaters, one that kept the game competitive, Nevada’s hot three-point shooting and size advantage from around the perimeter would ultimately overwhelm UCI and would allow them to tread out of Irvine with a 76-65 victory that keeps their record unscathed.
Sophomore guard Eyassu Worku played a pivotal role off the bench for the ‘Eaters, helping to space the floor and leading the team offensively with 13 points to go along with five rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes of action.
“[Our opponents] double our posts and they know that that’s the strength of our team,” Worku said of the team’s execution offensively, “and when they take that away the guards and the perimeter guys have to step up every single game.”
Redshirt junior forward Elston Jones had seven points but really did his work defensively, where he owned the paint with 10 points and two rejections that helped spark the first half momentum surge to keep the game from slipping away.
A number of other ‘Eaters were also essential in keeping Nevada on their toes.
Sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford also checked in for 10 points on 5-8 shooting while snatching four rebounds. Meanwhile, junior forward Brandon Smith and sophomore forward John Edgar Jr. each added nine points and combined for seven boards.
From the tip-in, UCI was slow the punch and Nevada came out swinging. By the 12:13 mark, the Wolf Pack lead by as many as 10, 18-8, with junior forward Jordan Caroline doing a lot of the heavy lifting, going on to pick up nine first half points on 50 percent shooting from the floor. Caroline would go on to become the game’s high man with a double-double on 24 points and 13 rebounds.
The ‘Eaters’ finally found their rhythm when their big men hunkered down on defense in a stretch that allowed the ‘Eaters to steadily cut the lead in half, 20-15.
“With this team…coach Turner told us that we play the hardest out of any team that he’s seen and I think that our effort is definitely our strength,” Worku said.
From there, UCI began running the floor on breakaways that led to a string of quick points, going on a 11-4 run capped by a triple from sophomore guard Evan Leonard to give the ‘Eaters their first lead of the night, 26-24. On a pair of baskets from Worku and Smith, coupled with a free throw from Jones, UCI held on to the lead heading into the lockers, 31-27.
“We settled in [and] we defended well,” head coach Russell Turner said of the team’s run in the first half. “I thought we dictated the tempo of the game with our defensive changes…we had a presence in the interior especially since they weren’t able to get good shots and we prevented their main three-point shooters from getting shots so we did what we said we would do for that stretch in the first half and scored enough to take the lead which I was pleased about.”
By the end of the first half, the ‘Eaters collectively shot better from the floor than the Wolf Pack, 45.2-35.7 percent, and outrebounded their opponents, 24-14.
Smith opened the second half with a silky drive to the paint, going by a couple of Nevada defenders with two long strides for a lay-up that extended the ‘Eaters lead to four, 33-29.
The Wolf Pack rallied back with a storm of triples, an arsenal that they had not employed much of in the first half.
Senior guard Kendall Stephens, who went on to finish shooting 5-7 from three and had 17 points on the night, knocked down the first triple of the second period to tie the game up 33-33 apiece. Two possessions later, Jones got the ‘Eaters back up with an easy two on a lay-up as Worku dropped in 11 of his 13 shots on 4-7 shooting, but the Wolf Pack caught fire from outside and went on to launch in seven treys on 53.8 percent shooting from downtown in the second half alone, proving to be the difference maker that would ultimately sink the ‘Eaters, 76-65.
“The made 10 threes in 22 attempts and we’ve continued to a have problem with our three point defense and that concerns me,” coach Turner said. “The frequency of three point makes against us is not where we want to be right now.”
The loss to Nevada marks the end of UCI’s short home stand as the ‘Eaters next five will be on the road, beginning with Utah State Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m.
“I think we’re going to be ready,” Worku said of the upcoming five games on the road. “We’ve kind of been through this and I think that we’re going to give it our all in every game and hopefully we’ll string a couple of wins.”
During halftime of Saturday night’s game, tons of stuffed animals flew towards the Bren Events Center floor as cheerleaders and staff frantically attempted to catch them in plastic bags and bins.
The unique occasion was brought on by the UCI Athletics department as part of their inaugural “Plush Toy Toss,” an event that encouraged fans to bring stuffed animals and plush toys to the game that they would like to donate to the UCI Police Department’s annual toy drive by tossing onto the court in a harmonized and festive manner.