Heading into the latter half of their primetime matchup against OC counterpart Cal State Fullerton (10-5, 3-0) Thursday night at the Bren, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (6-13, 1-2) appeared to be taking control.
After Fullerton went for seven unanswered points, the ‘Eaters battled through a competitive opening period to establish a seven-point lead of their own, one that quickly became a double-digit advantage within the opening minute of the second period when UCI sophomore guard Eyassu Worku drained a jumper from downtown.
On the next ‘Eater possession, Worku rose up, fired, and connected on another triple, a heat check that handed UCI what would be their largest lead at 11 with 18:26 remaining in the game.
The swish sent UCI’s home crowd into hysteria.
It was not necessarily the same dominance and poise that the program has been accustomed to seeing in the past four years, seasons that have helped establish UCI as an elite opponent in the Big West, most notable by the fact that the ‘Eaters were still favored to finish at the top of conference play in both the coaches and media preseason polls despite the departure of all three of their key seniors and conference chart toppers in Luke Nelson, Jaron Martin, and Ioannis Dimakopoulos. But for a young team that has fielded a tough non-conference schedule and has witnessed issues with their offense, the shots have been falling of late and the defensive identity and energy on the boards have still been intact, offering a glimmer into what the team is capable of becoming.
But if the last five minutes of Thursday night’s game says anything about UCI’s growth and development, there are still major improvements to be made. From what could very well have blossomed into yet another hard fought victory for UCI, became a nerve-wrecking statement victory for Fullerton who came back to win it at 67-64.
“I thought in the first half our execution of our game plan was solid [and] the game went exactly the way we predicted it would go except for the fact that we were unable to handle the ball against their pressure and make good enough decisions to play effectively on offense,” head coach Russell Turner said. “
The Titans, to their credit, adjusted well coming out of halftime. Despite UCI’s momentous start, Fullerton never quite let up and settled into their game, that is, attacking the basket and drawing fouls.
In the second half alone, the Titans got UCI over their foul limit midway through the period, going on to draw 15 of UCI’s 22 fouls for the night. The Titans would then go on to cash in 18 of their 22 attempts from the charity stripe, the last four of which ended up sealing the game.
For a team that is ranked among the bottom in the NCAA in 3pt shooting, Fullerton also stepped up and shot 42.2 percent from long range with three different players knocking down three significant treys that kept the Titans in the contest. Down 11, 41-30, Fullerton would rally with the ‘Eaters and came out with a slight seven-point advantage on a 20-13 run to take the lead, 53-52.
“We didn’t defend as well…we gave them a bunch of points in the paint…and we gave them a tremendous amount of points on the free throw line,” coach Turner said.
The tug-of-war continued up to a point where the game was tied up 58-58 with a little over three minutes remaining.
When the game went down the stretch, the ‘Eaters shrunk under heavy pressure imposed by a stifling Fullerton defense that matched the intensity of that of the home team’s, causing the ‘Eaters to turnover the ball on nine occasions in the period, the last of which came when the ‘Eaters found themselves trailing by a possession or two and had the chance of tying or taking the lead with 19 seconds to go in regulation.
“They appeared to intimidate us at the beginning of the game and at the end of the game,” coach Turner said. “We had our chances [at the end]…we had the ball with a chance to have a two for one possession at the end with 55 seconds or so on the clock and all we had to do was aggressively handle the ball and make decisions against a spread zone…but we took the possession down to the shot clock and never cracked the paint.”
Due to their turnovers and the Titans’ effort to get to the free throw line and subsequently convert their opportunities with high efficiency, the ‘Eaters were eventually iced out as sophomore guard Evan Leonard tossed in a frivolous floater right before regulation ended at 67-64.
“I feel like we kind of let up today,” Leonard said of the loss. “Offensively…we turned over the ball way too much and defensively, they were being aggressive and that’s what we should have been doing.”
UCI’s sophomore starting backcourt duo of Leonard and Eyassu Worku led the ‘Eaters in the losing effort with Leonard coming up one shy of tying his career high of 21 points as Worku added 14. Both guards also combined for seven boards, five assists, and snagged three steals a piece.
Sophomore forward Jackson Rowe (14) and junior guard Kyle Allman, Jr. (13) paced Fullerton’s offense. Rowe went 7-8 on the line as Allman, Jr. went 8-10.
Coming off their first winning season in years, finishing 17-15 overall and third in the Big West at 10-6 in their 2016-17 run, Fullerton is right on track for yet another major capstone campaign. With the victory over the ‘Eaters, the 106th matchup between the two programs, the Titans move to 54-52 in the all-team series and remain the team to beat in the Big West with a 3-0 standing.
There are still 13 games to be played on the season, but with a Big West conference that is virtually up for grabs, each game will become ever the more crucial as the season progresses. Up next for UCI is a trip out to Northridge next Saturday for a 7p.m. tip against the Matadors (3-13, 0-2)
UCI vented their frustration two days later when they dominated CSUN (0-3, 3-14) at the Matadome, 71-54.
Leonard dropped 20 points, the third consecutive time he has reached the 20-point tally, to lead the team in the victory. Sophomore guard Max Hazzard came off the bench for 14 and hit half his attempts from the floor.
Following a two-point lead in the opening three minutes, the ‘Eaters took over, leading by as many as 19 with a little over four minutes remaining in regulation.