The UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team lost to the Cal State Northridge Matadors in their final regular season game ending 72-70 at the Bren Events Center on Wednesday, March 4. The Matadors earned their first victory against the Anteaters since 2014.
The Anteaters (21-11, 13-3) — already crowned as Big West Regular Season Champions — were ready to send off their four seniors John Edgar Jr., Evan Leonard, Tommy Rutherford and Eyassu Worku with a victory. However, CSUN (14-17, 9-6) came to the Bren looking to play spoiler and improve their seeding for the upcoming conference tournament.
The Anteaters drew first blood with a tip-in layup by Rutherford. On the next possession, CSUN got on the board with a three pointer from sophomore Elijah Harkless.
CSUN redshirt sophomore Lamine Diane started his scoring night with a three pointer. He grabbed rebounds and then took the ball up the court, setting up the Matadors to score. Diane capped an explosive start with a fade away jumper to extend the lead, 20-4.
The Anteaters were back on the board thanks to redshirt sophomore Collin Welp’s three point basket, which reinvigorated the team and crowd.
On defense, freshmen Jeron Artest and Isaiah Lee both had steals that were eventually converted into points for the Anteaters.
The Anteaters found their groove by capitalizing on rebounds as redshirt junior Brad Greene asserted his dominance in the paint. An offensive possession, which was capped off by a layup by Greene, led to the Anteaters to cut the deficit to seven points. The score was now 22-15 with CSUN still ahead.
With less than eight minutes left, Leonard rallied a comeback with a block on CSUN junior Terrell Gomez’s three point shot. Leonard took it down the court and slammed the ball home for the Anteaters.
CSUN led 33-26 with two and a half minutes to go. Leonard drained a three, which cut the lead to four points. Greene then dished the ball out to Welp, who knocked down another three pointer to get within one point. A jumper by CSUN gave them a 35-32 lead with less than a minute to go.
CSUN’s Harkless missed a three pointer leading to a rebound by Welp and one final possession before the half. Worku drove the ball down the court and found Welp on the perimeter who drained a three before the buzzer. After being down as much as 16 points, the Anteaters came back to tie the game 35-35 at the half. The Anteaters took advantage of CSUN’s defensive strategy to get back in the game.
“They [CSUN] changed into a zone towards the end and it just helped to take our time to play to our strengths,” Welp said. He scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half. He also grabbed seven rebounds.
Worku got things started in the second half with a three pointer before CSUN responded with a three of their own. Another three pointer from Leonard as well as two buckets by Edgar Jr. and Rutherford had the Anteaters up 45-38.
The defense forced Diane and Harkless into taking tough shots, leading to defensive rebounds. Leonard, Worku and Lee worked to slow the pace of play down by moving the ball around the perimeter, exploiting the CSUN zone defense’s weak areas. A layup by freshman Austin Johnson pushed the lead up by nine for UCI, 55-46.
CSUN did not let the game slip away as Gomez, Diane and Harkless continued to hit clutch shots. They played hard defense to tie the score, 68-68. CSUN had all the momentum with two minutes and 22 seconds left on the clock, while a combination of fouls and missed jumpers hurt the Anteaters’ chances down the stretch.
Leonard’s fourth personal foul earned CSUN’s Gomez a trip to the free throw line where he scored his final two of 12 points in the game.
The next offensive possession for the Anteaters gave them two good looks at a three point shot but were both missed by Artest and Worku. Greene, who had already grabbed an offensive rebound, committed a foul on Harkless. The 29th and 30th points of Harkless’s night were scored at the free throw line, giving CSUN a 72-68 lead.
Greene’s jumper went in after an assist by Artest. The Anteaters needed to force CSUN into an empty trip to have a chance to take the game to overtime or find a win. A missed three ball by Harkless gave a chance for the Anteaters to rebound the ball. However, Diane rose above and grabbed his eighth rebound while also drawing a foul.
Diane had a chance to put the game away by converting two free throws, but missed the first one allowing Greene to earn his 11th rebound.
Greene scored a team high of 14 points and 11 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season. Leonard finished with 13 points and two blocks.
In the waning moments, the Anteaters moved the ball around the perimeter. Leonard got off a contested three, rattled the rim and went out with only seven seconds left. Worku chased after the loose ball and got it to Edgar Jr. with two more seconds on the clock. Edgar Jr. fired a three but only drew the iron. The game ended with a CSUN win, 72-70.
Harkless led the team with 30 points and seven rebounds. Diane, who was last season’s Big West Player of the Year, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
For seniors like Leonard, this was the final home game of their decorated careers. After the game, Leonard said that they will look at this game as a wake up call. This game could also be seen as a learning moment especially for the younger guys who will lead the team next season.
“As long as they watch and pay attention to some of the older guys and what they are doing. Just having poise, being under control and trying to make the right play at the end of the game,” Leonard said.
The Anteaters are the No. 1 seed in the Big West Conference tournament and will play in the quarterfinal against Long Beach State on March 12 at 6 p.m.
Christopher Piazza is a Sports Intern for the 2020 winter quarter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.