The difference between winning and losing for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (13-15, 8-4) came down to just 0.4 seconds Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.
But as reaffirmed by ‘Eaters sophomore guard Eyassu Worku, whose final desperation heave skidded wide left, the game should have never gotten to that point.
“I think in the first half they definitely outplayed us,” Worku said in a postgame interview with UCI Athletics. “Their defense bothered us with their hedges and we just couldn’t make plays [and] we couldn’t get paint touches.”
Visiting Hawai’i (13-10, 4-6) shot 53 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from three to take a 39-32 edge to conclude the first half. The opposition also challenged the ‘Eaters on the glass, securing just two fewer boards than UCI, 15-17, and in an uncustomary role reversal, forced six turnovers against one of the best defensive teams in the Big West.
“In first half play, we weren’t very good,” head coach Russell Turner said. “Hawai’i wanted the game more than we did with the way they played in the first half…so credit to them.”
Much of the night was spent on the foul line with a total of 42 whistles blown by the end of regulation. To the dismay of the ‘Eaters and many fans in attendance, however, 14 of those calls would come against UCI in the second half alone, as Hawai’i virtually kept the game tight from the line.
For the entire 20 minutes of the second half, the Rainbow Warriors’ attempted just three field goals with the first two baskets tallied within the opening three minutes and their last conversion coming in still with 3:29 to play. Hawai’i’s other 17 points—including the go-ahead buckets that would ice the game—came right from the line.
Despite a lackluster first half and a second half that was marred with foul calls, UCI did have glimpses of momentum that gave them a fair chance to emerge a top an ugly one. Going on a 13-5 run that was capped on a triple from sophomore guard Evan Leonard, the score was tied up 49 apiece. A few Hawai’i turnovers led to consecutive breakaways for second year men Max Hazzard and John Edgar Jr., the last of which gave UCI their first lead, 56-54 of the night with 5:01 remaining in regulation.
The run was soon squandered by a costly offensive foul call on junior guard Jonathan Galloway, who left the game on the same play having picked up his fifth while also rewarding the Rainbow Warriors a pair from the charity stripe since the ‘Eaters had already exceeded the limit well into the second half.
Tied at 56 again at that point, the free throws put Hawai’i up once more. Possessing the two-point lead, 58-56, with a little less than two minutes remaining in regulation, sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford drew contact and drained a free throw to cut the deficit to one.
After Hawai’i got to the line on three more occasions, Rutherford would come up big again out of a time-out with a quick shimmy and twisting hook to keep the deficit at one once more, 62-61 with 36 seconds left to play.
Milking the 30-second shot clock, Hawai’i got off a three that was wide off and collected by Hazzard who pushed the ball the length of the floor before calling a time-out that gave the ‘Eaters just 0.4 seconds to operate with.
Worku would heave on the final try but the attempt was wide off, concluding the game and snapping the ‘Eaters five game turnaround.
Three players hit double figures in the losing effort with Rutherford going for 13 and nine, a rebound away from another double double. Meanwhile Leonard and Worku added 11 and 10, respectively.
While the loss dims the ‘Eaters chances of winning the conference, UCI will be back in action Saturday, where they visit Cal Poly for a 7:00pm tip in hopes of doing everything they can to shape their own odds.