No identity crisis for UCI

ANAHEIM — Consistency is among the requirements for postseason success and the UC Irvine Anteaters proved, at least through one game of the Big West Conference men's basketball tournament, that they are who we thought they were.

Top-seeded UCI handled No. 8-seeded UC Riverside, 63-43, in the quarterfinals Thursday at Honda Center, virtually mirroring two previous wins over the Highlanders this season.

The win propels UCI (23-10) and ranked No. 14 in the mid-major poll, into a semifinal clash Friday at 6:30 p.m. against No. 7-seeded Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly knocked off No. 2-seeded UC Santa Barbara, 69-38, in another quarterfinal.

Thursday's triumph, which allowed UCI to tie the 1981-82 team for the second-most victories in one season in program history, was all about defense and statistical balance, which have been standard operating procedure this season for Coach Russell Turner's squad.

UCI held Riverside to 29.4% shooting from the field (15 for 51) to improve to 21-0 when opponents fail to shoot better than 40%. The 'Eaters are 16-0 when holding the opponent to fewer than 60 points and since Feb. 1 lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.332).

UCI held Riverside (10-21) to a combined 29.1% field-goal shooting percentage in its two regular-season wins: 72-52 in Riverside and 70-52 at the Bren Events Center.

"Tonight's game was like a lot of our games this year, in that we did what we do," said Turner, the conference Coach of the Year who guided the team to the program's third Big West title. "We worked and guarded just about every possession of the game. That's frustrating playing against a team [like us] that is able to protect the paint the way we were able to do tonight."

As usual, UCI's foremost leather detector is 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye, who blocked four shots to surpass Michael Olowokandi's Big West record for single-season blocks. Ndiaye, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year who has 98 blocks and set the record blocking a dunk attempt by Taylor Johns, had half of the Anteaters' total.

Ndiaye's presence forced Riverside's leading scorer, 6-10 senior Chris Patton, as well as other Highlanders, to rush and alter their shots. Patton was two for nine from the field and had five points, less than half his average (13.3). UCR's three front-court starters were a combined six for 25 (a mere 24%).

"Every team that plays [UCI] spends a lot of time on the scouting report to play against a guy who is 7-6," Patton said. "It's different playing against a 7-footer than a guy 7-6 and you know you have to play differently. You have to know where [Ndiaye] is and you're not even sure how far you need to get away form him to get off your shot. He definitely can affect your shot."

Will Davis, a 6-8 junior who was last season's conference Defensive Player of the Year with a then-school-record 88 blocks, led the winners with 16 points, making six of 10 from the field and all four foul shots.

Riverside interim coach Dennis Cults said UCI's defense is more than Ndiaye.

"Irvine is a very, very good team and [the 'Eaters] kind of made us, especially our offense, get out of our rhythm and comfort zone and how we need to play," said Cults, whose team was without freshman guard Sam Finley (foot injury), its second-leading scorer.

UCI freshman guard Luke Nelson had 14 points, including half of the team's four three-pointers, while senior Chris McNealy and sophomore Alex Young added seven points apiece. Young had seven assists and only one turnover in 27 minutes.

Ndiaye had four points and four rebounds, as did reserve guard Aaron Wright.

Junior John Ryan added six points and three rebounds off the bench for UCI, which swept both regular-season meetings against Cal Poly this season.

"We had contributions from so many different guys on our team," Turner said. "That's also typical of us. One of my concerns at the beginning of the year was whether our guys would be able to accept roles that we gave them and make sacrifices that would be necessary for our team. I feel like we've done that and everybody on our team right now wants just one thing, and that's for us to win."

Two more wins would mean the program's first trip to the NCAA Tournament and a school-record-tying 25 victories. But it doesn't appear that the Anteaters, who in the two previous seasons they won the conference crown did not get past the Big West Tournament semifinals, have any diminished focus.

"I had no idea that our record for most wins in a season is 25," said Young. "We're just trying to win games, taking it one game at a time and just competing at the highest level."

Big West Conference Tournament


UC Irvine 63, UC Riverside 43

UCR – Thornton 7, Patton 5, Johns 5, Quick 9, Jones 0, Gruninger 10, Deveney 7.

3-pt. goals – Gruninger 2, Quick 1.

Fouled out – None.

Technicals – None.

UCI – Davis 16, Ndiaye 4, Nelson 14, McNealy 7, Young 7, Ryan 6, Wright 4, Dunning 3, Souza 2.

3-pt. goals – Nelson 2, McNealy 1, Wright 1.

Fouled out –None.

Technicals – None.

Halftime – UCI, 34-22.

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