The No. 2 seeded UCI Anteaters (17-8, 10-4) defeated the No. 10 seeded Cal Poly Mustangs (4-20, 1-15), 58-51, in the quarterfinals of the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Men’s Basketball Championship, presented by The Hawaiian Islands in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 11.
The Mustangs looked to continue their “Cinderella” run after upsetting the Cal State University Fullerton Titans on March 10. The Anteaters were ready to answer the call from the tip, riding high after a four-game winning streak to close the regular season.
Both teams struggled offensively as they tried to dissect the defensive gameplans. The Anteaters got on the board first with a post possession for redshirt junior forward Collin Welp, who hit a 15-foot jumper. Welp came back with another post-up on the right side of the court and converted a spinning 13 footer. UCI took an early 9-2 point lead with a stifling effort on the defensive end, keeping Cal Poly from getting any quality shots. It was clear that the Mustangs were trying to find offense down low in the paint. Nonetheless, once the ball began to move around, it was hard for them to resist taking deep jumpers.
Offensively, the Anteaters’ ball movement allowed them to hit open jumpers and stretch the Mustang defense. After the second TV timeout, redshirt sophomore forward JC Butler slashed the paint and found sophomore forward Austin Johnson for the dunk, which ignited the Anteater bench. Slashing, or driving hard into the paint, proved to be a great offensive strategy for the Anteaters as it led to great success finishing in close and finding open shooters.
Welp converted a straight-on three-pointer before poking the ball free on a high ball screen. The steal led to free throws, which pushed the lead to 17. With a score of 26-9, the Anteaters were in full command.
The Mustangs started 4-20 from the field, a testament to the Anteaters’ strong defensive gameplan. Meanwhile, the Anteaters started 12-19 with a wide range of high percentage shots. This was the hottest the Anteaters had been from the floor shooting wise during this season’s conference play to start a game.
Cal Poly sophomore forward Alimamy Koroma ignited the Mustangs with seven straight points, keeping his team afloat and knocking the lead down to 16. The Mustangs continued to fight, and it looked like the Anteaters took their foot off of the gas. Cal Poly sophomore guard Colby Rogers knocked down a three-pointer to cut the lead to six; the momentum had completely shifted to the Mustangs. The first half was a tale of two halves, all within one half. The Anteaters didn’t make a field goal for the five final minutes of the first half, and the Mustangs ended it on a 13-1 run. Nonetheless, UCI led the Mustangs, 34-27, at the break; an imminent second half was to come.
The second half began with both teams weary of the pace. UCI sophomore guard Isaiah Lee knocked down a three-pointer to start a quiet beginning to the half; Cal Poly senior guard Mark Crowe responded with a three-pointer. UCI pushed the lead back up to 10. However, it was far from the dominant starting performance that the Anteaters showcased.
Cal Poly junior forward Tuukka Jaakkola finished a two-foot hook shot to cut the lead to six points, 42-36. The Mustangs hit a three-pointer to pull within three points of the UCI lead. The Mustang intensity played a big role in UCI’s struggles; their smart decision-making disappeared, and they had to grind out baskets to preserve their lead. Freshman guard Dawson Baker drove right and finished a runner to put the Anteaters back up by five.
Both benches and coaches remained permanently on their feet as the back and forth game approached six minutes.
The Mustangs got in the bonus with about 10 minutes left, and they managed to get to the free-throw line from reliable offensive plays to tighten the lead. The Anteaters needed to make sure the Mustangs earned their points from the field rather than hitting free throws.
Welp drove the ball down the right side and finished with a flexing celebration. The Anteaters were up by eight points with four minutes left. Cal Poly freshman guard Brantly Stevenson hit an in-rhythm three-pointer, which caused the Mustang bench to erupt in cheers. The Anteaters were now only up by six with under three minutes remaining. UCI forced a Cal Poly missed shot and called timeout with 1:42 left in the game, setting up a grand opportunity to finish strong.
In the final stretch of the game, the Anteaters turned it over off of an inbounds pass and the Mustangs took possession. Once again, the Anteaters managed to force a miss and hit their free throws to put the game out of reach for the Mustangs. The UCI Anteaters defeated the Cal Poly Mustangs by a score of 58-51.
UCI head coach Russell Turner was asked about his team’s effort to respond to the Mustangs’ run.
“Well I thought that we had gotten away from the things that we were most emphasizing coming into the game. The game can seem too easy. I focused on the primary message that I’ve given this team coming into March: you have to execute the fundamentals, you have to play together, and you have to make shots and plays. We did enough of that tonight to win,” Turner said.
The stakes are always high in conference tournament play, as it could be the last game of the season; for seniors, it could be the last game in their college career. The Anteaters established their presence early, stifling any Mustang surge. The opening minutes of college basketball games are important in determining whether or not an underdog can hang around and upset the favorites. The Mustangs came out and competed with the Anteaters, but UCI held onto their lead in the second half.
“It’s especially hard to win when young players feel the pressure in this tournament. We haven’t faced the adversity normally that teams face. The only way to learn how to deal with that is to go through it. We are very thankful to move on tonight,” Turner said.
The Anteaters’ performance was enough for them to advance into the semifinals against UCR on March 12 at 9 p.m. UCI looks to defend their extended two-year regular season conference title defense, spanning two years due to the pandemic.
Matthew Zeko is a Sports Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.