By Henry Curi and Vaibhav Gowda
Photographed by Kate Rutz-Robbins
On January 10, UC Irvine Men’s basketball team faced off against conference rival UC Davis Aggies at home. It was the first regular season game for both teams, who have had intense and deciding match-ups in the previous two seasons.
This year isn’t as evenly matched though in terms of overall record as others have been. The UCI Anteaters have gotten off to one of their hottest starts in team history, coming into the game with a 12-4 record. On the other hand, the Aggies have been struggling with a 4-10 record with only two division I wins. This is unfamiliar territory for Davis’ team as they’ve found immense success the last two seasons winning the Big West Conference Tournament and the league championship.
The first half showed to be a little one-sided, as UCI controlled the tempo early on. Third year guard Evan Leonard came out of the gates running as he started the game hitting back to back jumpers, giving momentum to the Anteaters.
He wasn’t the only veteran showing out early on, as third year guard Max Hazzard and third year forward Tommy Rutherford made their mark in the first half as well. The Anteaters held the Aggies to shoot only 7-20 from the field in the first half and only allowed 1-7 three pointers to go in.
To make matters worse for Davis’ first half, Hazzard ended the period with a three at the buzzer that increased their lead to go up 28-19 at the end of the first 20 minutes.
The second half was a different story though, as UC Davis fought their way back led by point guard TJ Shorts II, who put the team on his back to rally a comeback. The Eater’s started the second half on a sharp note, playing solid defense to force the Aggies into turnovers leading to several breakaway points. Tommy Rutherford scored a pair of tough shots before Max Hazzard scored a pair of free throws to put the Anteaters up by 16, their largest lead of the game.
This lead would soon diminish courtesy of TJ Shorts II who showed just why he is the reigning Big West Conference player of the year. Shorts led the comeback with a series of layups and mid range jump shots, tying the game right after a three pointer from Joe Moonie.
From then on the game had the feel of the kind of conference rivalry game we’re used to seeing from these Big West powerhouses. Stanford Graduate Transfer Robert Cartwright had his first start and contributed in more than one way down the stretch, scoring a 3 pointer to take the lead and finishing the game with 8 assists including a dime to Tommy Rutherford for an electrifying alley-oop.
Shorts who finished with a team high 21 points continued to answer every time the Anteaters went on a scoring run.
To make matters worse for the Anteaters Tommy Rutherford and John Edgar Jr. were both fouled out with five fouls with the Eater’s lead at four with a minute to go. In what was an abysmal free throw shooting night for both teams shot less than 65% from the line. Elston Jones missed two free throws down the stretch allowing TJ Shorts to tie the game.
Following a pair of missed 3 point attempts from Colin Welp and Evan Leonard, TJ Shorts had a chance to score a 3 at the buzzer to win the game which he missed sending it to overtime.
The overtime period was similarly gritty. Elston Jones and Galloway showed how important they are to the team with crucial blocks at the rim. The Aggies chose to foul the Anteaters early and paid the price with the Anteaters scoring 8 of their 10 overtime points at the line.
With the game at 71-69 the Aggies had another chance to win the game on the final possession. Following a good screen and some defensive miscommunication, Shorts was given a wide open shot from the 3 point line which he wasn’t able to score giving the Anteaters their first win of conference play.
The Anteaters move to 13-4 overall and 1-0 in Big West Conference play. Leonard, who finished the game with a team high 22 points, had some words about their anticipated battle against UC Davis.
“It was a lot of fun, they’re a great team, we knew that. They beat us the last three times we played them so, especially going into that overtime, it was looking a lot like last year, you know. We wanted to make a difference and make sure we got it done,” said the third year guard.
The Eater’s face Orange County opponent Cal State Fullerton on the road on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s Big West Tournament final matchup.