In the 101st Black and Blue Rivalry matchup between the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (6-12, 1-1) and Long Beach State (7-11, 1-1), a scorching three-point shooting performance proved to be the difference maker for the ‘Eaters who picked up their first conference victory, 86-73,while improving their all-time series standings against their Big West foe to 43-58 Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.
For all the struggles surrounding UCI’s offense during their challenging pre-conference slate, the ‘Eaters seamlessly found the bottom of the net time and again from the outside in their second conference game, collectively registering a season-high and new home arena record 14 triples on 56 percent shooting.
Hitting 11 of their threes in the first half in 18 tries, the ‘Eaters put up 51 on the board heading into the lockers—also a new season best—against the 49ers’ 31 to possess a 20-point cushion.
“We look a lot different [as a team] when shots are going in like that,” head coach Russell Turner said. “I thought that early in the game we got ourselves going because we moved the ball and took good shots and then once we got going…even some shots that were a little bit questionable started going in and that’s how the game goes with momentum sometimes. I’m pleased that we could have that type of performance,” coach Turner said. “I hope that we can build on it and I believe we can.”
Sophomore guard Evan Leonard, who managed to convert just two points in a losing effort against UC Davis last Thursday, ending up leading the way for the ‘Eaters with a new career high 21 points.
“I believe in his ability so I’m not surprised by his performance,” coach Turner said. “The way he responded [to his performance at Davis] is just what I expect…moving on to the next thing [and] responding to adversity…that’s what our young team needs to display.”
Leonard reached his career-high by recording another personal best in threes, responsible for five of the team’s 14 triples.
“Personally, I feel like I was definitely able to get in a rhythm after missing a couple [of shots] early,” Leonard said of his shooting. “My coaches [and] my teammates give me a lot of confidence to keep shooting and that’s what I did. Definitely as a team as well, everybody was hitting today.”
Fellow second year guard Eyassu Worku added to the onslaught from beyond the arc, connecting on both of his three point attempts while making a number of midrange jumpers and lay-ins to finish with 20, going 8-15 from the floor.
Sophomores John Edgar Jr. and Max Hazzard rounded out the double digit scoring, posting 15 and 14 points respectively. Hazzard went 4-5 from downtown as Edgar Jr. hit half of his attempts and also played a hand in crashing the boards, snagging 10 to complete his double double.
“I was very pleased with John Edgar’s outstanding performance on the boards,” coach Turner said, “That was his role tonight and I thought that he showed some real growth with the way he competed in that role.”
With the help of Edgar Jr., the ‘Eaters also out-rebounded their opposition, 44-32, in what turned out to be yet another glaring categorical battle that had keyed in on the victory.
“The tricks of this team have been our ability to defend and rebound,” coach Turner said, “That’s been our identity of our program for a good while now that has led to us being consistently good and competitors for the championship so I’m not surprised by [our rebounding ability] tonight. I thought that our center combination of Brad Greene and Elston Jones…those guys where especially effective on the boards in the minutes that they got and that’s a vital component to our team’s success.”
Up against a 49er team that entered conference play second most in rebounds, the ‘Eaters fought and earned 15 offensive boards that led to 11 second chance points while securing 29 on the defensive end.
Long Beach had no answer for the ‘Eaters’ hot shooting in the first half and did not retaliate much on their end, hitting just 38.5 percent of their shots from the field, 28.6 for three.
As a quick up-tempo team, Long Beach was held to just two fast break points for the entirety of the night. For a team who is accustomed to swinging and moving the ball swiftly, the 49ers dished out just seven assists, less than half of their season average at 14.2.
Down 20 heading into the latter half, the 49ers came as close to 15 on three different occasions when they forced a few turnovers on a full court press and improved their overall shooting to 48.5 percent and 50 percent from three.
Senior forward Gabe Levin, who has led Long Beach in scoring and rebounding, finished the night with a team-high 20 points to go along with seven rebounds.
Still, the ‘Eaters continued to click with their offense with Leonard and Worku orchestrating the offense, combining for 21, 10 and 11 respectively, UCI pulled away and ran out the clock to seal the victory.
“It feels good,” Leonard said of picking up a win in Thursday. “We had a tough one at Davis…and we came into this game with some extra fire, especially being a rivalry game…and being at home. We always want to play hard for the fans because they always come out and show their support.”
Fielding a tough pre-conference schedule that has been ranked the 11th most challenging in the nation followed by an upsetting Big West opener at Davis, the ‘Eaters will look to hold on to their high energy and offensive prowess for the remainder of the season.
“A lot of people it feels like in this community have been shocked by our record and looked at us like we were not the team that we showed tonight we could be,” coach Turner said. “So I’m excited for this performance because it reflects the belief I have in this team.”
UCI will return to the Bren next Thursday where they will add another chapter with yet another longstanding Orange County rivalry against Cal State Fullerton, the 106th meeting between the two. Tip-off will be set for 7:30p.m. for a prime Fox Sports West broadcast.
“I think that’s a really key matchup for us,” coach Turner said. “They are a competitor for the conference championship just as we hope to be. We’re all jockeying for position. It’s a 16-game championship and we’ve only played two so that’s the third one, it’s a home game and it’s a rivalry game so I hope our students and our fans will be excited for that like we are.”