Staying true to the natural tune that has been playing out for the majority season—one that has bobbed with astounding highs and curious lows—the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (9-14, 4-3) fittingly recovered from a 70-58 loss against Santa Barbara last Saturday by getting back over .500 once again with a 79-40 win over UC Riverside (5-15, 0-6) Wednesday night at the Bren Events Center.
“I think that it’s important to have depth and spirit in your team,” head coach Russell Turner said. “This team here at Irvine, we have that…we are not good every night but I do think we have depth and spirit…and we’re going to take our swings.”
Four different ‘Eaters reached double-figure scoring with UCI’s starting frontcourt duo leading the way.
Sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford, who averaged 18.5 points last week, took game high honors with a double double 15 points and 10 rebounds. Junior forward Jonathan Galloway also had a double double, tying his career high in rebounds for the fourth time on the year with 14 to go with 10 points.
“We have confidence in our bigs,” Galloway said. “We take pride in having a lot of big guys and we feel like we have a really great group in the league.”
Galloway’s 10 points is the first time he had hit double figure scoring since logging his career high 11 against Chapman back in November. Of course, the standing Defensive Player of the Year does not care too much about the particular stat line, so long as he’s helping his team anchor the paint.
“I don’t really worry about points or anything like that,” Galloway said. “I just worry about rebounding the ball, playing defense, and just being a leader for the team…I know that’s my role on the team and we just have to buy in to win.”
Sophomore guards Eyassu Worku and Evan Leonard also put up 13 and 12 points respectively, and teamed up for nine boards.
UCI’s zone defense bothered Riverside as the ‘Eaters held their visitors to just 24.6 percent shooting from the floor (10 percent from three) and outrebounded them, 55-30.
“I think our zone defense really slowed them down,” Rutherford said. “We really worked as a unite and caused stops and turnovers.”
The ‘Eaters did, however, come into the Bren as the high favorites with the Highlanders struggling immensely to find their first victory under interim coach Justin Bell following the erupt firing of head coach Dennis Cutts in the wake of conference play.
Sophomore guard Dikymbe Martin, the Highlander’s leading offensive contributor with 13.1 points per game, did not play Wednesday and had sat out of the last two prior to the matchup with UCI.
“We played a shorthanded opponent tonight that had a difficult time making shots,” coach Turner acknowledged. “Some of that was our defense and some of that was probably [the Highlanders] having a off night.”
Riverside cashed in on a few points from the low post but was rendered scoreless for over seven minutes of action against the ‘Eaters’ zone.
In that same period, UCI converted more than half of their attempts from the floor and worked their offense to mount a 15-point advantage, 29-14.
Rutherford and Galloway combined for 18 points and 14 boards to lead the attack against the Highlanders from inside the paint as Worku worked some midrange magic, adding 10 of his own to award UCI a 20-point lead, 39-19 heading into the half.
The lead remained lopsided in the final 20 with the ‘Eaters extending their advantage to 15 early in the period and adding 25 to the onslaught to go up 77-37 with 3:55 left in regulation. Some superfluous baskets finalized the game at 79-40.
UCI will have a week off before their next outing where they will travel to Long Beach State on January 31st. While the ‘Eaters handed the 49ers a 13-point loss in their last meeting at the Bren, coach Turner recognizes the improvement that their Black and Blue rivals have made since.
“I know that it’s going to be a spirited game,” coach Turner said. “They are playing a lot better than the night they were here…I think we caught them here on a bad night. The game will be an important one for both teams as we jockey for position for the standings. We still hope to be a contender in this league and we’re going to need to win some tough road games if we want to maintain our spot as a contender.”