By Henry Curi
This past Saturday, the red hot UC Irvine Anteaters faced off against the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in a nationally-televised home match-up, in hopes of extending their seven-game winning streak in front of the home fans and the people watching at home.
The Anteaters started the game absolutely firing on all cylinders and shutting down the Gauchos’ offense, applying full-court pressure from the very beginning and allowing no easy looks at the rim.
UCI jumped to an early 11-0 run in the first five minutes of action, as their team-basketball style of play proved to be effective and all team members were getting touches on the offensive end.
Irvine moved the ball effectively, creating opportunities in the post, as players such as freshman forward Collin Welp and senior forward Elston Jones were able to execute with their back-to-the-basket action and second-chance buckets, which gave their team the advantage.
No one from UCSB was able to get consistent points on the board, as graduate student forward Jonathan Galloway was a monster on defense, blocking shots that came near the rim and not allowing any easy layups from the Gauchos.
Irvine kept up the defensive pressure in the first half, which resulted in many turnovers from Santa Barbara and easy fastbreak points for the run-and-gun Anteaters.
Head Coach for UCI Russell Turner kept the rotation flowing, implementing his bench players just as much as his starters, having everyone contribute to the mix and always seeming to have fresh legs on the floor. His coaching tactics allowed all players time on the court and deepened the strength of his roster.
The end of the first half saw UCI up 42-28. Freshman forward Welp led the way with 10 points, shooting 4-5 from the field, as the Anteaters held Santa Barbara to an inefficient 36 percent from the field on 10-26 shooting.
To begin the second half, UCSB flipped the script offensively and were able to create open space and knockdown perimeter jumpers.
Third-year guard for the Gauchos Max Heidegger was able to find his rhythm and connect on back-to-back jumpers. He also got help from his teammate, second-year guard Jaquori McLaughlin, who connected on a three of his own.
The small run by Santa Barbara didn’t last long, as UCI was able to pick it back up on the offensive side and make opportunities to score the ball.
Later in the half, UCSB began to apply a full-court pressure defense that proved effective against Irvine, as they created turnovers and got easy fastbreak points and extra possessions as a result.
Heidegger heated up as he drove hard, penetrating the Anteaters’ defense, knocking down pull-up jumpers with a hand in his face and giving his team the edge.
The sloppy turnovers from Irvine and the consistent shooting fouls cut their lead to just eight with three minutes to go; it looked like the Gauchos had a real chance of pulling off the upset on the road and ending UCI’s seven-game winning streak.
Third-year guard Evan Leonard began to take charge for the Eaters, helping to pull away with the lead by aggressively attacking the rim and converting on various floaters.
The Eaters were consistently getting to the line in the final minutes and converting on free throws. As a result, the team came out with a 83-70 win in a hard-fought battle against the Gauchos’ chippy comeback attempt.
UCI finished the game shooting an efficient 48 percent from the field and 20-24 from the charity stripe.
Leonard finished with a team-high 23 points, propelling his team to a victory, extending their winning streak to eight games and improving their conference record to 10-1 for the season.
He commented on his performance and his team’s historic success, stating, “I just wanted to be aggressive today, especially because of the last time we played them, I wasn’t really able to get anything going. The past couple games, I haven’t been able to get nothing going. But, I’ve just been putting in work, as you can see, I was able to have some success today. As far as having the best record in school history, we’ve been playing well as a team. We’ve just gotta keep working hard, keep getting better.”
The third-year guard also commented on Welp’s success and value as a player, as he finished the game with a solid 12 point performance: “Collin is a really good player, by now I’m pretty sure all the teams know that. He helps us out in a lot of different ways. He can post up, he can turn around and shoot threes. He’s a different type of match-up that the defense has to adjust to and he gave it his all tonight.”
UC Irvine looks to continue this extraordinary run as they face Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this Thursday.Their match against Cal Poly concludes their four-game home stand before they hit the road for a three-game stretch.