Hot off a three game win streak, one that featured two major victories over formidable Big West foes in Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (12-14, 7-3) returned home and successfully defended the Bren, picking up their fourth straight victory with a [score] win over CSUN (5-19, 2-8).
On a quick turnaround, the ‘Eaters are now sitting alone in third with a 7-3 standing in conference play. UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis—programs that are still undefeated at home—hold the first and second slots respectively with 7-2 Big West standings.
It was another significant night for the UCI bigs, who solidified the ‘Eaters attack with 46 points in the key while also snagging 41 boards and seven blocks. Sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford lead the frontcourt offensively with a double double 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think the thing that is the most pleasing thing to fans is how just how hard Tommy plays and how great his character and his intent is on the floor,” head coach Russell Turner said of his second year big man. “He’s a hard working kid whose doing everything he can to help his team win on every play.”
Having led the team in scoring in five of their last six contests, Rutherford continued to showcase a vast arsenal of moves on the offensive end, sinking a few turnaround hook shots while extending his range out to 12-15 feet out. He credits his offseason workouts as well as his teammates for the recent spurt of production.
“I really worked on [my offensive game] during the offseason…looking for different ways to score,” Rutherford said. “I think it’s more on my teammates really looking to give me the ball in good places and they’ve been really setting me up to succeed [from] inside.”
As Rutherford carried the ‘Eaters offensively, redshirt junior forward Elston Jones protected the basket on the other side, coming up with six blocks.
After dropping 30-points in a comeback victory against Long Beach State last Wednesday, sophomore guard Evan Leonard had another great outing with 15 points on 5-9 shooting.
With both teams shooting under 30 percent from the floor, the ‘Eaters broke out of their slump by doing what they know best: playing hard-nosed defense and pounding the ball inside.
As they held the Matadors to just eight points for over 15 minutes of action, a stretch where they turned away five shots, UCI got it going on a 22-point run.
16 of those points came in the paint with Rutherford leading the way with 10 quick baskets.
A two-hand jam from Rutherford handed the ‘Eaters a 26-10 lead with a little over three to go.
The ‘Eaters run, however, was halted a bit on a few empty possessions that brought a lull to the game. Despite going on to convert just 25.8 percent of their shots, the Matadors used the period to shave a few baskets off to cut their 16-point deficit in half, going for eight unanswered before heading into the locker.
UCI’s defensive intensity did not let up to start the second half.
The ‘Eaters quickly forced three turnovers on the Matadors while giving up just four.
UCI also controlled the ball a lot better, committing just one miscue for the entirety of the second half as opposed to eight in the first.
On a strip and breakaway lay-in from Leonard, the ‘Eaters pumped their lead up up to 18, 55-37, and would go on to ride out their large advantage with a little over 10 minutes remaining.
Consolation baskets considered, the game capped at 77-56.
With their current win streak, coach Turner cites an improved level of play, exhibiting consistencies that the team have been searching for of late.
“We’re taking better care of the ball, that was our biggest weakness throughout the preseason and nonconference schedule,” coach Turner said. “I think that we embraced our defensive identity even more and so we can frustrated teams. We are getting better with our fundamentals defensively and we are getting better at playing intelligently and executing our game plans.”
Even on their roll, however, the team does not want to fall into complacency.
“We’ve been together as a unit,” Rutherford said. “We’ve been strong on defense and we’ve established our identity [in] rebounding and that’s definitely helped us get in a role here but we’re not complacent and we want to keep this going.”
The ‘Eaters will head right back on the road Saturday where they will visit Riverside for a late afternoon tip at 5p.m. As the season winds down to the final six games in conference, UCI will look to approach each and every game like its a championship one.
“The [Big West] Championship comes down to the next six games for us,” coach Turner said. “I know that if we win them all, we’re going to win the championship…but we’re not going to focus on that, we are going to take one day at a time [and] get better each day. One game at a time…the next championship game for us is at Riverside Saturday.”