First place in the Big West Conference was up for grabs by the time the UC Irvine men’s basketball team took the court on Saturday.
Coach Russell Turner knew UC Santa Barbara, the team with which the Anteaters went into the day tied for first place, lost a tough one at home to Cal State Northridge in the waning seconds of overtime. He made sure to keep the result from his Anteaters prior to them playing host to UC Riverside.
“I didn’t want their minds on anything other than competing … and our game plan,” Turner said. “I thought we were in a good place mentally.”
The Anteaters have been in an ideal state of mind in February. They are perfect so far in the month and they now find themselves alone atop the Big West.
The Anteaters took care of business against one the worst teams in the conference, defeating the Highlanders, 70-52, in front of 2,986 fans at Bren Events Center.
The Anteaters (17-9, 8-2 in conference) won their fourth conference game this month. With six Big West games to go, UCI is in position to win its first regular-season conference title in 12 seasons.
The preseason favorite to win conference was UCI. Two of the teams trying to catch the Anteaters are UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii, which are second and tied for third third, respectively, in the standings. In two of next three contests, UCI sees each team.
The key stretch starts Thursday at Hawaii (18-7, 7-4), before UCI wraps up the month at home against UC Santa Barbara (16-7, 7-3) on Feb. 27. Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara are the only teams to hand UCI losses in conference.
“I told the guys, ‘We’ve played 10 games and we’re ahead now, but it’s still a long, long race with six games remaining. It’s a race that requires endurance and toughness,’ ” Turner said.
Dominique Dunning exhibited the type of toughness Turner expects from his players, in order for the Anteaters to close out the season strong. The guard came off the bench, and scored a career-high 20 points in 13 minutes. He made eight of nine field-goal attempts.
Dunning, as he always seems to do, brought a lot of energy. And with Dunning and his teammates having a bye on Thursday, the Anteaters had an extra step against the Highlanders (8-17, 3-8).
The visitors shot a dismal 28.6% and turned the ball over 17 times. The Anteaters improved to 16-0 when the they hold the opposition to worse than 40% shooting.
“They had the whole week to prepare for us,” said Highlanders interim coach Dennis Cutts, whose bench was outscored, 42-19.
The only thing Cutts saw his team win was the opening tip. A player much smaller than 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye outjumped Ndiaye. The big guy helped the Anteaters get the ball back right away, though.
Near the right block, Ndiaye pressured 6-10 Chris Patton into an errant pass toward the top of the key, where Chris McNealy stole the ball, his first of five steals. The turnover led to a McNealy layup, the first of his 10 points.
The Anteaters’ lead grew to as many as 16 points in the first half. Things got a little tight at the 13:14 mark in the second half. Highlanders guard Sam Finley made a layup, while being fouled. Finley, who finished with 11 points, converted the three-point play to cut the deficit to 42-39.
In the next nine minutes, UCI went on a 20-6 run to take control. Everyone seemed to contribute for the Anteaters, Aaron Wright with a layup, Mike Best and Young each with threes, and Dunning with a traditional three-point play.
“The trip that we face to Hawaii and to [Cal State] Northridge is critical,” Turner said of the Anteaters’ next two games. “Hawaii played well enough here to beat us [90-86 on Jan. 25]. We have our work cut out for us.”
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 70, UC Riverside 52
UCR – Johns 12, Finley 11, Thornton 8, Patton 6, Devenny 5, Jones 4, Gruber 3, Quick 3.
3-pt. goals – Quick 1, Gruber 1, Thornton 1.
Technicals – Team 1.
UCI – Dunning 20, Young 11, McNealy 10, Best 7, Ryan 6, Wright 4, Ndiaye 3, Souza 3, Davis 2, Nelson 2, Martin 2.
3-pt. goals – Young 2, McNealy 1, Souza 1, Dunning 1, Best 1.
Halftime – UCI, 36-29.