Sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford was feeling it.
Turning baseline, he didn’t see the double team coming, but even as contact came, he absorbed it, clenched the ball tight, pivoted, double pumped, and went straight up. Good. Later, he finds himself in the post again, this time, in isolation. One-on-one, he fakes a turn toward his left and spins right. Left hook. Good. Leaking ahead on a breakaway with a defender trailing him, Rutherford rose up with two hands, took a slap on the elbow, and slammed it down—whistle, and one.
After failing to reach double figure scoring in his last 10 matches, Rutherford responded with a career-high 20 point outing to lead the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (8-13, 3-2) to a 80-73 victory over Cal Poly (6-12, 1-3) Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.
“I’ve struggled in the last couple of games,” Rutherford said. “But in this game in particular, I focused on trying to step through some of those double teams and I was a lot stronger and I feel like it’s definitely getting better…I’m improving.”
Regardless of what Cal Poly threw at Rutherford defensively, the 6’8’’ Grossmont High product still found a way to find his touches, converting 70 percent of his attempts on the floor and while going a perfect six for six on the charity stripe. He also collected eight boards and a steal to round out the rest of his productive stat line.
Rutherford may have emerged the high man of the night, but his fellow big men also turned up notable performances and efforts in locking down the paint—the proven difference maker of the night.
“I think it was four guys tonight in all that really worked together to establish a paint presence that can be the difference maker for us,” head coach Russell Turner said. “Tommy gets the most attention tonight for scoring 20 points but I thought [Jonathan] Gallow[ay] and Elston [Jones] and Brad [Greene] were all really good in their roles and that was the reason why we controlled the game.”
Sophomore forward Brad Green and redshirt junior Elston Jones came off the bench and teamed up for 14 points—eight and six—and eight boards in 24 minutes of action.
UCI scored more than half of their points in the painted area and more than doubled their opposition with close range baskets, 44-16. The ‘Eaters, who currently lead the nation in total rebounding with 865, outboarded the Mustangs, 42-29.
“At the beginning of the conference season here…a lot of people have said all these things about our guards,” coach Turner said, “but we’ve got talent and depth throughout this team.”
Junior forward Jonathan Galloway continued to anchor the ‘Eater’s defense, turning back two shots while securing 10 rebounds for the ‘Eaters with exactly half coming on the defensive and half on the offensive.
“Gallow is a dominant defensive player,” coach Turner said. “He’s a special talent that’s probably under-appreciated [but] he’s not under-appreciated by me or our program. I enjoy watching him play because of the pride he takes and the impact that he can have with his defensive commitment and ability.”
While Galloway’s defensive prowess continues to add to the ‘Eaters’ versatility, the third-year veteran is also climbing the ‘Eater record books. In a dominant decision at Northridge prior to UCI’s matchup against Cal Poly, Galloway had eclipsed former ‘Eater Mamadou Ndiaye’s (2013-16) record of 554 total career rebounds to take the 18th spot in UCI’s 500-rebound club. Having logged 569 now, Galloway has his eyes out for assistant coach Mike Wilder (2009-13), who sits at 14 on the list after snagging 596 in his time at UCI.
UCI’s success in the key did not come as easily as the numbers may make it out to be as the Mustangs have a few formidable forwards that were capable of causing a ton of trouble for the ‘Eaters, one of whom was redshirt junior forward Josh Martin who put up a double-double with a game-high 24 points and 12 boards.
Cal Poly’s starting backcourt duo of senior Victor Joseph and junior Donovan Fields were held to a combined 8 points in the first half but returned to form coming out of the second, finishing with 16 and 18 respectively.
Although the game was won from the inside, UCI commenced the night from the outside. Sophomore guards Max Hazzard and Eyassu Worku got the ‘Eaters going on a 11-0 run, logging six and five points respectively, to take a 18-8 lead with 11:31 to go.
Almost immediately, however, Cal Poly retaliated on an identical 11-point swing to get back on top, 19-18, on a lay-up from Martin.
Pretty soon, the ‘Eaters doubled down on forcing the issue in the paint. Sophomore forward Brad Greene hit a floater and followed that up with a lay-in to get the ‘Eaters back up by three, 22-19. Then Rutherford helped cap the half off with a flurry of lay-ups interspersed through the final three minutes as the ‘Eaters suddenly found themselves up big, 39-37.
Worku handed UCI their biggest lead of the night at 20 on a nifty drive with 14:03 remaining in regulation.
Fields and Joseph broke out of their quiet first half, going for a combined 26 points on 10-15 shooting from the floor to help rally a late Cal Poly comeback. A three-point basket from Fields got the ‘Eaters lead down to single digits with two and half remaining but a Galloway dunk and a few dry trips forced the Mustangs to fight against the clock and foul in which the ‘Eaters utilized to cap the game, 80-73.
Stringing together two consecutive victories, their first in conference play, the ‘Eaters are looking to get more consistent play out of their youthful lineup.
“We’re an inconsistent group at this time,” Turner said. “Our challenge is to keep getting better and to consistently play more possessions at a higher level.”
UCI will head to Santa Barbara for a late 9p.m. tip. The game will be broadcasted on ESPNU.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Rutherford said. “Santa Barbara is a really good team [and] it’s a tough road environment…all these conferences games are. It’s going to be a high energy environment and we look forward to playing in that type of environment.”