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Men’s Basketball Shows Growth and Poise Through Bid for Big West Tournament Title and NCAA Tournament Berth

Despite an upsetting loss to No. 4 seeded Cal State Fullerton in the finale of the Big West Tournament, No. 3 seeded UC Irvine showed a sense of growth that validated much of their rocky up-and-down season with a thrilling three-day showing.

The Quarterfinals

By the looks of how things were playing out, with a little over four minutes to go in the Big West Conference Quarterfinals at the Honda Center Thursday night, No. 3 seeded UC Irvine was not expected to advance into the next round. Until all of a sudden, they were.

Trailing by 10 to No. 6 seeded Hawai’i, the ‘Eaters looked dejected. Their bigs, whom UCI has hinged much of their advantage on in both ends of the floor, were limited with foul trouble. Shots were not falling, and the Rainbow Warriors were rolling.

But somehow, a spark had lit, and in a way that momentum and basketball works sometimes, the ‘Eaters got a few crucial looks they needed, a hero to rise above the occasion, and showed a level of poise head coach Russell Turner has been searching for all season long to survive and keep their postseason alive for yet another a night.

It was the tandem of second year guards Eyassu Worku and Max Hazzard who stepped up and scored 13 of UCI’s 17 points down the stretch, providing an offensive pop in a late comeback that will likely go down as a classic told time and again in the program’s lore.

While Worku attacked the paint, Hazzard found his success from the outside; a lay-up from the former and a triple from the latter would shave the deficit in half. Worku stayed relentless and continued to pound the ball with his hard dribble, earning free throws with 2:26 to go, both of which he drained to get within three, 64-61. A possession later, he made a near-identical drive, finessing his shot high up where it kissed the glass and dropped in. Down one.

Hawai’i, who had played 35 minutes of excellent basketball, were eager not to see their season collapse in a span of a few possessions — especially senior forward Gibson Johnson, one of many veterans looking to keep Hawai’i’s tournament dreams alive. Johnson did all he possibly could, powering up for a layup that he put down plus a foul of which he connected on to give Hawai’i a one lead, 67-66 with 14 seconds to play.

In a moment when the ‘Eaters needed a player to rise up,Hazzard took it upon himself to pull-up, without hesitation, for the game winner and a flex for the fans. It was a big shot reminiscent of heroics that Luke Nelson and Alex Young put forth from the storied tournament runs of the past.  Just like that, the ‘Eaters found themselves advancing to the semifinals.

And at the end of the crazy finish behind the corridors of the Honda Center, even coach Turner, no stranger to the ups and downs of a tournament like the Big West, had to admit at least the slight improbability of it all.

“Credit to Hawai’i and the players on their team,” coach Turner said. “The level that Hawai’i played at was difficult to match, and I’m sorry for them that they were not able to win that game, but I’m sure happy we were able to … it would not be an upset if Hawai’i beat us, they’re good. They’re a good team, and they are veterans … and we don’t have any seniors, so we need to have other guys step up. Our three guards … Eyassu [Worku], Evan [Leonard] and Max [Hazzard] were outstanding [and] they carried us tonight. I didn’t think that our bigs played near as well as we often do and we’re going to need everybody to continue to have success … we have to feel somewhat fortunate to have won that game, and we know that.”

The Semifinals

A day after their nail-biting finish Thursday, the ‘Eaters engaged fans in the Honda Center in yet another breath taker against No. 2 seeded Santa Barbara.

Pitted against a veteran team that has witnessed a new youthful spark with the play of sophomore guard Max Heidegger, while maintaining a steadfast composure with the leadership of senior guard Gabe Vincent, UCI navigated through a tough first half, some foul troubles and a scoreless night for team frontrunner Evan Leonard, and made it virtually a three-possession game to advance to the conference championship.

After Hazzard locked up the contest with 3:23 remaining, sophomore forward John Edgar Jr. picked off Vincent and went the distance to put UCI up two, 59-57. Heidegger, who finished with 18 points, cut Santa Barbara’s deficit to one with 2:28 to play.

But when both teams went cold for the next few crucial possessions and each possession magnified, Worku assumed clutch shot responsibilities on the evening, knocking down a deuce that all but sealed the game at 61-58.

The Gauchos had 38 seconds to operate and after Vincent clanked his triple and Santa Barbara took a desperate final second toss, UCI raised their fists in the air once more in the sounding of the horn.

In two games on two nights, the ‘Eaters emerged victorious against lethal veteran teams. Fortune and chance may have played a part in it, but something else was going on.  UCI was showing something special.

Coach Turner believed that it was qualities that the team has possessed the potential for all season long.

“Obviously proud of my team tonight,” coach Turner said. “I thought that we showed the same type of resilience and toughness that we’ve had to show in many games in this conference. We were able to win because our team has great belief in our ability to impact games by getting stops. Our guys have been giving up a lot of experience advantage to the team that we just played … and to overcome the youth is exciting. We didn’t play a great game … but we grinded it out, which is what our guys wanted to do, and I know we’re going to continue to get better as an offensive team and a decision making team … so I’m excited for this group and what they’ve earned. It was a special type of win because of the character that is evident from my team.”  

The Finals

The Orange County matchup between UCI and No. 4 seeded Cal State Fullerton was set to be a thriller.

The teams had got to the finale in similarly-electrifying ways. While the ‘Eaters survived against Hawai’i, the Titans narrow-endedly brought down Long Beach in their quarterfinal matchup, 76-74; and right before the ‘Eaters defeated Santa Barbara by three, the Titans had ousted and upset the No. 1 seeded UC Davis by two, leaving fans in attendance of the game and filing in to see the UCI-Santa Barbara matchup stunned.

By all accounts, the first half was still a close one, and was shaping up to meet the expectations. Leonard made up for his performance against the Gauchos, pouring in 18 of his 20 points for the evening in the first half. The ‘Eaters played their tight defense and managed to trail by only 29-25 heading into the half.

The second half, however, revealed the difference between the two youthful teams: one that has put in their fair share of abysmal years and has established a strong identity from one who is on the verge of reaching that same greatness with their respective young players. In other words, the Titans represented the type of team the ‘Eaters may soon be in the coming years and demonstrated it through a fiery second half that they used to run away with the cup in an unexpected blowout 71-55.    

For the ‘Eaters, while the first period was scrappy, the second went wayward. The Titans came out firing and fell behind their brilliant junior guard tandem of Kyle Allman Jr. and Khalil Ahmad. Allman and Ahmad combined for 49 points of the Titans 71 points. Ahmad shook off a slow, two point first half to go for 21 in the second on 9 of 16 shooting. Allman Jr. earned tournament MVP honors after posting 26 on the evening and scoring 20 or more in seven of his last nine contests.

“They were terrific and deserved to win for the performance they had,” coach Turner said. “I give great credit to [head coach] Dedrique Taylor and his staff. They’ve done a nice job recruiting a mix of players from different places that fit well there and have clearly bought in to the style that they play, and they were excellent. They’ve built it the old fashioned way … the way that we’ve also built ours … they’ve shown faith in the coaches and the players and recruited mostly out of high school and have done a great job developing those guys … and now they have an NCAA tournament berth that they’ve earned.”

Yet despite the upsetting loss, the ‘Eaters showed a sense of expedited growth under an immense amount of pressure — especially in late game situations. Put simply, when games went down the line during their rollercoaster regular conference play, the ‘Eaters had not really performed well as evident by a number of narrow losses to conference foes, one of which included a three-point defeat to the Titans at the Bren back in January.

But if coach Turner had prophesied anything, it was the fact that this team, as young as they may be, had been built ready for tournament play. The way they had played with a sense of control and an enduring pace in the first two rounds validated the reason why he had scheduled one of the toughest non-conference slates in nation for them, one that has featured perennial powerhouses and some surefire NCAA tournament participants like Kansas State, Nevada, and UCLA.

The ‘Eaters are only graduating one senior this year with many of their major contributors concluding just their second year of collegiate eligibility. There is a belief that the experiences that the team has undergone through these heartbreaking tournaments series will only factor into their growth

“I feel like we grew up a lot, especially in these three days,” Leonard said. “We lost, but this is, in some way, a learning lesson that can allow us to…work on what we need to work on in the summer. I feel like we’ll continue to pull together and continue to get better … we’ll be back.”

When the ‘Eaters were down 16 with four minutes to go against the Titans, there was still some buzz in the Honda Center with a belief that somehow, the ‘Eaters were going to come back and that is a testament to the growth, potential, and excitement that this young ‘Eater team will bring in the coming years.

“We’ve built something that I’m proud of and I think people who watch us closely are also proud,” coach Turner said. “I do believe that the future is bright for us.”