RIVERSIDE — Just because UC Irvine men's basketball coach Russell Turner elected not to play starting big men Will Davis and Mamadou Ndiaye didn't mean the Anteaters gave anything less than their "Best" effort Saturday night.
Mike Best, a 6-foot- 10 sophomore who along with 6-10 junior John Ryan replaced the aforementioned standouts in the starting lineup for the first time all season, had nine points, nine rebounds and five blocks to help the visiting Anteaters handle UC Riverside, 72-52, in a Big West Conference clash at the Student Recreation Center.
Turner said Davis, a 6-8, junior who came in averaging a team-best 12.1 points and 7.4 rebounds, and Ndiaye, the nation's tallest player at 7-6 who ranked third nationally coming in with 59 blocks as a freshman, both sat out with minor physical limitations. Turner failed to specify, only to say that both were less than 100% and both are expected to return for Thursday's conference home opener against Cal State Fullerton. Both had started the team's first 17 games.
Turner said keeping Davis and Ndiaye on the bench had nothing to do with disciplinary action.
Best and Ryan, who had five rebounds, seven points, one assist, one steal and one blocked shot, both played 27 minutes.
Meanwhile, backcourt stalwarts Chris McNealy and Luke Nelson had 13 and 14 points, respectively, while fellow starting guard Alex Young finished with five points and eight assists.
UCI (11-7, 2-0 in conference and 4-0 in January) went 31 minutes without committing a turnover and finished with four for the game. UCI was up, 60-43, before it committed its first turnover and Riverside had no points off turnovers.
Travis Souza and Ioannis Dimakopoulos had nine and six points, respectively, for UCI, all on three-pointers as the visitors connected on 11 of 21 from beyond the arc (52.4%).
UCI shot 48.1% from the field and limited the Highlanders (5-11, 0-2) to 29.6% field-goal shooting (16 for 57), including just one for 12 from threedom. Riverside had nine turnovers.
"A lot of people think we are a defensive team because we have Mamadou [and Davis, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 who owns school records for single-season and career blocks]," Turner said. 'But tonight we didn't have [them] and we were a good defensive team. We're a good defensive team because we're a good defensive team; because we play, compete and fight as a team."
Turner said there were a lot of strong performances up and down his roster, including eight different Anteaters with three-pointers. Turner, however, was not satisfied with the 38-32 rebounding deficit that included 11 offensive rebounds for the hosts and a 13-8 Riverside edge on second-chance points.
"I don't think we rebounded enough, but to nitpick a 20-point win on the road is kind of silly," Turner said. "We were competitive tonight and we guarded and guarded. We executed our game plan and I was really proud that the [intensity] level was where it was, when I chose to sit out two guys who weren't 100%.
"[Best and Ryan] are fighting for a role and they are making an impact," Turner said. "You could see this coming in the recent performances by both these guys and I'm not a bit surprised [with their production]. That was among the reasons why we decided not to play Will and Mamadou tonight. That's no disrespect to Riverside, just respect for the guys on my roster. [Best and Ryan] at 100% are better than [Davis and Ndiaye] at less than 100%."
Best said he did not see the starting opportunity coming until prior to the game.
"It was a bit of a surprise, but it was a nice surprise," said Best, who called his performance the best of his collegiate career.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 72, UC Riverside 52
UCI – Best 9, Ryan 5, Nelson 14, McNealy 13, Young 5, Souza 9, Dimakopoulos 6, Wright 5, Dunning 3, Martin 3,
3-pt. goals – Souza 3, Dimakopoulos 2, Young 1, McNealy 1, Nelson 1, Martin 1, Dunning 1, Wright 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCR – Johns 10, Thornton 6, Finley 13, Gruninger 4, Devenny 3, Patton 14, Harriel 2.
3-pt. goals – Finley 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 35-23.