IRVINE – UC Irvine’s sporting nickname is, of course, the anteaters. But for UC Riverside’s men’s basketball program, they might as well be the white whale, the character in Moby Dick who was endlessly pursued but never caught.
Or perhaps the Highlanders’ quest for UCI could be considered a Sisyphean task, with a boulder they just can’t quite make it up the mountain.
UCR and UCI came into play Saturday night at the Bren Events Center, separated by a half-game in the Big West Conference standings. The Gulf looked much more impressive after the Anteaters’ 83-64 win on a night when UCI shot 56.7% from the field, UCR held at 35.6% and the Highlanders 38-20 in the colour, 16: 1 on fast breaks and 22-6 on bench scoring.
This was not a season breaker, mind you. UCI is 10-3 in conference play (17-8 overall) and a game behind first-placed UC Santa Barbara with a chance to avenge an earlier loss to the Gauchos Wednesday night in Santa Barbara. UCR is 9-5, 16-10 and tied for fourth with Long Beach State with a rematch with LBSU scheduled for Wednesday night in Riverside.
But with the conference tournament now four weeks away, a one-bid league is set to build a crescendo. UCR, which has starting center Kyle Owens likely out for the season through injury, needs everyone else at maximum efficiency and had a lot less on Saturday night, taking 22 points from Australian newcomer Lachlan Olbrich and 12 from senior guard Zyon Pullin in 4-for-11 shooting .
For UCI, junior Dawson Baker scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting and fellow junior DJ Davis – from Riverside Poly and thus one who escaped UCR – added 18 while he went 6-for-11 with four 3-pointers went. The Anteaters led 38-27 at halftime, breaking it up with a 16-5 run early in the second half and leading 28 with 6:44 to go.
“It felt like two years ago in the (Big West Tournament) semifinals (a 78-61 loss in Henderson, Nevada) and just the guys didn’t understand what it’s going to be like and really the strength it takes to playing that game against them,” said UCR coach Mike Magpayo. “That’s her identity. So we didn’t take on that challenge.”
And he added: “I’ve been telling them what to expect for the last 48 hours and sharing it with them and bringing the intensity this morning. It started in the shootaround. Coach Magpayo was the most intense guy in the shootaround. … I think that a program has to think about whether we are ready to take on this challenge. If we are not ready, the Dollar Loan Center will be.”
Over the past five seasons, two under David Patrick and the last three under Magpayo, the Highlanders have focused on building a roster capable of rivaling the Anteaters and their signature physicality and intensity.
UCI coach Russ Turner said he appreciates that kind of respect, but also noted that the anteaters deserved it. They have an overall record of 259-166 in the Turner era, with five Big West regular-season titles, six trips to the conference tournament championship game, and two tournament titles since he took office in 2010.
“They’re not the only team in the league trying to figure out how to get where we were,” Turner said. “You know, when I got the job, I went through the same thing. At the top were Long Beach and Santa Barbara. And we tried to find out what identity could be effective for us here. That’s the million-dollar question of trying to build an identity for a college basketball team.”
In Turner’s first season with the UCI, the Anteaters were 13-19 after assistant coaching positions at Wake Forest (under Dave Odom) and Stanford (Mike Montgomery) and six seasons as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors. Next they were 12-20. In his third season they were 21-16 and off to the races.
One of the constants at UCI during the Turner era was defensive intensity, and it’s an interesting phenomenon in college basketball. There isn’t a coach in the country who doesn’t preach the importance of defending, but how many actually do it and make it clear that if you don’t defend, you don’t play?
“Yes, we preach defense all day in practice,” said UCI senior guard Pierre Cockrell. “Free throw rebounds are another thing that we’re preaching right now. We gave up a couple of those tonight which we’re training again and working on and getting better. But yeah, I think we’re a defensive team and if we come out and defend like that at a high level, I think we can win against anyone.
This was of course a small sample size. On the other hand, UCR has lost three of its last four and four of its six without Owens, a 6-foot-8 grad transfer from Montana averaging 10 points, 5.6 rebounds and 24.4 minutes per game overall and 12.6 points and 7 .6 rebounds had scored conference play, but was injured on January 19 at UC Davis. The Highlanders were 13-4 with him on the starting lineup, and without him Olbrich and Jhaylon Martinez got plenty of big man minutes.
“We fought without him, but it makes a difference,” said Magpayo. “He won’t be with us, so it doesn’t matter.”
But if the UCI stands in the way, here are some sobering numbers for the UCR: The Highlanders have lost to the Anteaters six straight times since a win at Riverside in February 2021, and 16 of 17 dated February 2015, another home win. In the Turner era, UCI is 19-5 against UCR and hasn’t lost to the Highlanders since December 2010 at the Bren Center.
“I mean, we were really good tonight,” Turner said. “But with a team as good as Riverside, you can’t expect that level of dominance. Credit to Coach Magpayo and his staff and administration for where they have this team right now. They are a good team who had a tough night tonight. … We played really, really well and I like the fact that we were good both offensively and defensively. But no, nothing was normal tonight as far as playing against a top-class team like Riverside.”
But from UCR’s point of view, this white whale is not getting any smaller.
https://www.ocregister.com/2023/02/11/alexander-for-uc-irvine-another-dominant-night-at-uc-riversides-expense/ UC Irvine Basketball maintains distance with UC Riverside