By Henry Curi
The UC Irvine men’s basketball team faced off against the second-seeded Cal State Fullerton Titans on Feb. 6 in their first regular season matchup. Both coming off of a five-game winning streak, the two teams battled in a much anticipated tournament rematch following last year’s competition which saw Fullerton coming out on top.
The game didn’t start the way the Anteaters wanted it to, as lack of communication on the offensive end led to back-to-back turnovers for the team and allowed Fullerton to gain early momentum and capitalize on the other end.
Senior guard Khalil Ahmad was the engine that ran Fullerton’s offense in the first half. He was able to penetrate the lane with ease, capitalizing on contested shots and taking the ball to the rim at will against Irvine’s big men. He racked up 11 points in the first eight minutes of play.
For the Anteaters, senior guard Spencer Rivers was able to give a little bit of life to UCI’s struggling offense, creating his own shot with a turn-around jumper that got him going as he hit another mid-range shot from the right wing and a third bucket by driving hard to the hole. Aside from that, no one else was really able to produce on offense.
UCI had a tough time holding on to the ball in the first half as they committed nine turnovers and were held to only shoot 9-28 (32%) in the first 20 minutes of play.
Led by Ahmad’s 13 points, Fullerton possessed a 21-18 lead at the end of the first half.
In the second half, UCI flipped the script and began to execute offensively with no remorse, becoming snipers from beyond the arc.
Junior guard Max Hazzard came alive and seemed to be the catalyst that his team was looking for.
Hazzard shot the ball with extreme confidence, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to get the crowd going. Excitement in the arena skyrocketed with the energy of the players on both ends. Hazzard had a heat check moment, after drilling another three against Fullerton’s lackluster defense.
Freshman forward Collin Welp was able to hit a three-pointer from the top of the key that helped to strengthen Irvine’s advantage.
Irvine’s defense was able to limit Fullerton’s two most dangerous scorers in the second half, as Ahmad had no buckets with seven minutes to go in the second half and fourth year guard Kyle Allman, Jr., struggled to get his shot up, only having six points overall with seven minutes left in the tightly contested match.
Graduate student Jonathan Galloway was able to turn up the intensity as well for Irvine, crashing the boards with force and executing at the free throw line when needed most for his team. He even got an emphatic dunk to leave his mark on the game.
Irvine allowed no easy buckets in the paint and had a hand up on every shot, holding Fullerton to shoot only 32 percent overall and allowing them to only make four of their 14 shot attempts.
The Anteaters saw improvement in their shooting percentage, shooting 55 percent in the second half — a 23 percent increase from the first.
In the end, UCI prevailed and secured a victory against Cal State Fullerton with a score of 60-53, extending their winning streak to six and strengthening their spot as the number one seed in the Big West Conference.
Max Hazzard, who ended the game with a team-high 19 points on 50 percent shooting from three, stated after the game, “It was definitely a sweet victory, considering they beat us last year when it counted. We’re not too high and we know we’ll likely see them again in the tournament. In terms of my shot, sometimes I get a little frustrated. I feel like they should all go in, but I still play with a lot of passion and a lot of joy and I’m pretty confident in my ability to make shots for sure.”
He also mentioned how he’s confident in his and his team’s ability to rise up in clutch situations, especially with Hawaii coming this Saturday, who they recently had a close battle with.
Hazzard knows the team’s coach Russell Turner cares about his players’ success on the court and that his highly vocal demeanor is in the team’s best interest to come out with wins. They appreciate the way he runs the team from the sidelines.
This developed chemistry between players and their coach has propelled them to an overall record of 20-5 and has put them in the driver’s seat to make it to the national tournament this year after falling short the last two seasons. The Anteaters extended their hot streak with a win over Hawaii in UCI’s annual Homecoming game the following Saturday on Feb. 16, beating Hawaii 67-56.