The UCI Anteaters (14-8) faced the UC San Diego Tritons (5-10) on Saturday afternoon for their third and final meeting of this inconstant season. The Tritons tried to recover from losing their previous game 80-55, but the Anteaters continued their dominance, finishing with a score of 75-64.
The Anteaters started off the game strong and fast. Pushing the ball across the floor, Irvine found great success in this strategy for much of the match. In this past season, UCI has struggled coming out of the gate with momentum backed by a high-functioning gameplan. However, tonight’s performance was definitely a step in the right direction. Sophomore guard Isaiah Lee had a strong shooting streak early on in the match with two three-pointers — six of the Anteaters’ first eight points.
However, both teams suddenly lost the energy displayed in the beginning minutes of the match. UCSD and UCI were abruptly sluggish, displayed by a four-minute field goal drought. The Tritons did a great job of flipping the switch and finding enough energy, effort and grit to keep UCI’s firepower down. Thus, the Tritons were the ones who dictated the pace of the game to avoid falling behind as they did in the previous game.
The end of the first half was marked by an evident shift in UCSD’s gameplan. The Tritons began clogging the paint, forcing the Anteaters to settle for tougher shots. The Tritons took a small lead led by senior forward Hugh Baxter, who hit a three-pointer with just over three minutes remaining, to put the Tritons up by a game-high of eight points. After senior center Brad Greene finished a layup, the Anteaters went scoreless for over two minutes until redshirt junior forward Collin Welp converted a three-pointer at the buzzer. The Tritons led the Anteaters at the break, 28-23.
As the second half began, it was clear that UCSD had made the adjustments to win the night’s match. The Tritons’ first four baskets in the second half were all three-pointers, making it extremely difficult for UCI to catch up to them. The fourth three put the Tritons up by twelve points, the largest lead of the game.
UCI began to chip away at the gap with freshman guard Dawson Baker and Welp’s shotmaking. Both players were vital for the Anteaters to match the guards of the Tritons. UCI went on a scoring run to cut UCSD’s lead to just four points with under nine minutes remaining in the game. Welp hit another three to tie the game at 49 as the Anteater bench exploded with a massive ovation. Baker followed up the shot with a steal to convert a finger roll on the other end, taking a two-point lead, 53-51. It was the Anteaters’ first lead of the half, massively shifting the momentum for Irvine.
Despite UCI’s best efforts, UCSD came back with a drive and a behind-the-back, no-look, pass to find Baxter who splashed in a three-pointer. Baxter was San Diego’s best player on the floor throughout the night, leading both teams in scoring with 28 points. His shooting was lethal; yet, he had a strong enough threat off of the dribble to force double teams on attacks. Baxter finished with a game-high 28 points.
Unfortunately for the Tritons, Baxter’s heroic effort wasn’t enough to stall the late surge for the Anteaters. Welp and Baxter went toe-to-toe with three-pointers, but Baker was the difference in the showdown. Baker, with 18 points by the end of the night, trailed Anteater co-captain, Collin Welp, by only one point.
Nearing the end of the match, Baker drove to the lane and finished in traffic before finding a steal on the other end. The Anteaters moved the ball around, and eventually found Baker who sank a contested three-pointer. It was an unbelievable stretch for the freshman guard who has had an incredible opening collegiate season.
Baker’s scoring run essentially iced the game, causing UCSD to resort to desperation-fueled three-pointers as time expired. The final score of the night was 75-64, with the Anteaters outscoring the Tritons by sixteen in the second half. The game was certainly closer than UCI had initially expected, but as March approaches, matches are proving to be tougher and tougher.
The Anteaters look to close out the regular season with back-to-back wins against Long Beach State on March 5-6 at the LBSU Pyramid. After that, UCI will head to Las Vegas to compete at the Big West Tournament.
Matthew Zeko is a Sports Intern for the 2021 Winter Quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.