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HomeSportsThe Anteaters Win, Stand One Game Away From March Madness

The Anteaters Win, Stand One Game Away From March Madness

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The No. 2 seeded UC Irvine Anteaters (18-8, 10-4) defeated the No. 3 seeded UC Riverside Highlanders (14-9, 8-4), 78-61, at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. on March 12. The game was the semifinal matchup in the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Men’s Basketball Championship, presented by the Hawaiian Islands.

The Anteaters played with a sense of urgency, which carried over from their quarterfinal matchup against the Cal Poly Mustangs. They fought in the second half to avoid an upset, and the players felt the pressure to maintain a comfortable lead. 

After a few offensive possessions, UCI found themselves up, 9-0, which forced a Highlander timeout. UCI freshman guard Dawson Baker drove to the hoop with energy, allowing him to finish over any opposing Highlander player that challenged him. After the second TV timeout, UCI led 13-2 over the Highlanders. 

Baker continued to shoot the lights out from a distance, swishing in a three-pointer from the right side off of the dish from UCI freshman guard DJ Davis. 

The Highlanders put together a short run that included a tough three-pointer by redshirt senior forward Arinze Chidom right before the shot clock expired; this cut the UCI’s lead to just seven, 18-11. UCI came back with a post possession after junior forward Collin Welp got the inside position on his defender, flipping the ball up and in while drawing a foul. The bench stood up as Welp celebrated across the floor. The Anteaters maintained an eight-point lead with 7:45 minutes remaining in the first half.

UCR junior point guard Flynn Cameron hit a three-pointer; however, Baker did not provide enough room for Cameron to land, which resulted in a foul and a four-point play. The foul shot cut the Anteaters lead to six before redshirt sophomore forward JC Butler hit a high-arching floater in the lane. 

Davis knocked down a three-pointer to put the Anteaters up by double digits and quickly forced a turnover to push the lead. With three minutes remaining, the Anteaters found themselves in the bonus and converting at the free-throw line. UCI led by 10 with one minute remaining in the first half. In an attempt to take control of the game before halftime, sophomore guard Jeron Artest hit both free throws to increase the lead to 12. UCI sophomore forward Austin Johnson had a huge block that rejected a Highlander layup before Davis hit a three-pointer on the other end; this stretched the lead to 15. At the end of the first half, the Anteaters led 41-28.

The Anteaters shot 47% from the field in the first half while holding the Highlanders to a measly 37%. Davis and Baker were the only double-digit point scorers by the end of the half — impressive for a young group of freshman guards. With their teamwork, the two’s persistent driving and deadly shooting allowed the Anteaters to be strong offensively. 

Right from the opening whistle, Artest splashed a three-pointer. The Highlanders responded with a three of their own. Still, UCI came out with a ferocious intensity that was missed to start the second half in their last game; head coach Russell Turner’s message to “remember the fundamentals because those things will win the game” had come to fruition. 

“The score was 0-0. We can’t get too high on what we just did,” Baker said about Turner’s message at the half. 

“I got at least one guy who listens,” Turner said with a chuckle.

With under 16 minutes remaining, Chidom knocked down another three-pointer off of a sweet dish from his teammate; this marked his second deep ball of the half. He came right back and hit a third one, cutting the lead to seven. Artest silenced the Chidom-led Highlanders run with a top of the key three-pointer — the sharpshooters were out in numbers tonight. Baker and Welp converted five straight free throws to put the Anteaters up by 15, matching the game’s largest lead. 

With 14 minutes left, it felt like the Highlanders had to find an answer to get back into the game. UCR redshirt senior guard Dominick Pickett ran the offense with solid possessions that resulted in attacking the hoop; however, the Highlanders struggled in stopping the Anteaters’ guards since they continually spread the defense and found open forwards down low. UCI led UCR, 58-44, with 11 minutes remaining in the game.

The lead was locked at about 10 points as both teams found their spots offensively. With five minutes remaining, redshirt senior center Brad Greene finished a layup, breaking a four-minute field goal drought. The game started to slow down in the closing minutes, but it was up to the Highlanders to make something happen as UCI kept their double-digit lead intact for most of the second half. Welp set up in the post and found sophomore guard Isaiah Lee who drained a corner three-pointer. Lee turned to his bench and screamed in response. The shot put the finishing touches on a strong performance for the Anteaters tonight.

UCI led by 14 with two minutes left to play. In desperation, Chidom hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to 11. However, UCI inbounded the ball cleanly, which led to free throws. UCR started to take any open three-pointer and fouled immediately in their comeback attempt. 

The Anteaters iced the game with proficient free throw shooting. The UCI Anteaters defeated the UCR Highlanders with a score of 78-61. 

Photo by Marcus Carrillo/Staff

The win sets up the final against the No. 1 seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. UCI won both matchups earlier in the year against UCSB; however, UCSB has become the conference’s hottest team since then. The winner will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament as the Big West Conference Champion.

Matthew Zeko is a Sports Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. He can be reached at mzeko@uci.edu.