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UCI’s March Ends With Loss to Hot-Handed Gauchos

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The No. 2 seeded UC Irvine Anteaters (18-9, 10-4) lost to the No. 1 seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (22-4, 13-3), 79-63, in the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Men’s Basketball Championship presented by the Hawaiian Islands at the Michelob ULTRA Arena on March 13. The matchup marked the culmination of the tumultuous and memorable season for both teams, which ended with UCSB punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament as the automatic qualifier and sole representative of the Big West. 

It was the third time the two teams had faced off this season, with the Anteaters winning the first two contests all the way back in late December. It has been a long road since those two matchups; UCSB looked to turn the outcome in their favor, riding the hot-handed No. 1. On the other side of the court, UCI planned to extend their Big West champion reign, having won the edition in 2019.

Right from tipoff, senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin made his presence known by knocking down a three-pointer as the shot clock expired, giving the Gauchos the early lead. The Gauchos took a 6-0 lead before redshirt junior forward Collin Welp drove, gathered and finished to put the Anteaters on the board.

The Gauchos played hard from the tip — an intensity that was derived from the high stakes of the night. The Anteaters had to match their energy to stand a chance. UCI head coach Russell Turner drew up a great play during the game’s first timeout, giving Welp an open layup off of a screen. UCI freshman guard Dawson Baker took the Gauchos’ challenge upon himself; he drove and finished over two defenders that were draped on his hip.

The Gauchos started a full-court press defense with 13 minutes left. UCI had to deal with the pressure of getting the ball across halfcourt and avoiding any traps in the process. The Gauchos’ boisterous effort from the start of the game enabled them to control the tempo and maintain a five-point lead. The Anteaters’ offense stagnated at times, keeping them from finding open lanes and outside shooters. UCI had yet to make a three-point jumper, contrasting their first two games of the tournament. 

UCI sophomore forward Austin Johnson provided Turner with more flexibility in his rotations. He provided quality minutes, punishing the Gauchos’ big men and getting to the line. Sophomore guard Isaiah Lee broke the Anteaters’ three-point drought, knocking one down with a hand in his face.

The jumper knotted the score at 16 with just under eight minutes left in the half. McLaughlin finished a layup with a foul to take the lead again. UCI redshirt senior center Brad Greene hit a hook shot with a prime position in the paint to respond. Greene followed it up with a tough rebound before pushing the ball up court to Lee, who finished a reverse layup. The basket ignited the Anteaters bench, giving them their first lead of the contest.

The Anteaters found themselves in a tight half, being over the foul limit with five minutes left on the clock. They had to play strong defense without allowing UCSB to get to the line. The Gauchos jumped out to a 7-0 run behind their guard penetration. In response, Baker and freshman guard DJ Davis both made back-to-back field goals to end Santa Barbara’s run. The Anteaters cut the lead to just three points, taking a charge on a drive. 

With 48 seconds left, Turner called an offensive set to try to finish the half on a high note. Davis got to the line, and his foul pushed the Gauchos over the foul limit. Davis converted both free throws and Welp missed the deep jumper at the buzzer. The Anteaters trailed the Gauchos at the break, 31-30.

It was a virtually identical first half in field goal percentage, as both teams shot within two percentage points of each other. The second half brought extra intrigue because both teams matched one another so closely. The only question was: which team can find and exploit the other’s weakness?

The second half began with a great defensive possession for the Anteaters, forcing a shot-clock violation. The Gauchos took a six-point lead before Baker found his spot, five feet from the hoop, and floated a shot in the net. The Anteaters faced foul trouble early in the half again, totaling four before the 15-minute mark while the Gauchos had none. The second half seemed to set the stage for an uphill battle for the Anteaters, but it was far from over.

The Gauchos ballooned the lead to nine off of a McLaughlin reverse layup. Davis hit a deep three-pointer to answer, but UCSB was clicking on all cylinders on the offensive end. Johnson rebounded a miss from Davis and finished it with a foul. The Anteaters trailed by six with 11 minutes remaining in the second half.

On the next UCSB possession, McLaughlin was left open for a three-pointer. UCSB pushed the lead to double digits with two free-throws, the largest of the game. McLaughlin hit two more three-pointers stretching the lead to 16 points. With only six minutes remaining in the game, UCI was in severe danger. Junior forward Miles Norris caught fire for the Gauchos, putting the dagger in for the Anteaters.

The Anteaters were defeated by the Gauchos with a final score of 79-63, ending their chances at an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. 

Photo by Marcus Carrillo/Staff

Greene and Welp were both first-team selections for the All Big West Conference tournament team. 

Though they lost the championship title, it was a terrific season for the Anteaters, who had to battle a myriad of different challenges in such an uncertain season. 

“We had a tough year. I was proud of everyone the way they fought,” Greene said about the season. 

Turner commented on the future for the young Anteaters in the coming years.

“I believe in all of our guys on this roster. We were really close to winning a championship tonight in the tournament, and that’s with a really young roster that’s going to continue to grow and develop,” Turner said. “I don’t think anybody could objectively look at our program without positivity and that’s the way I feel about our future.”

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