Although they have had a rough run over the past few games — UCSD is 2-8 in the CCAA — this weekend’s performances give hope for the second half of the season.
Friday’s match-up started well for the Tritons as UCSD scored a quick bucket when senior Justin Brue hit sophomore James McCann for the opening bucket.
The Tritons then jumpead to an 8-2 lead in the first four minutes of play, but failed to maintain the advantage.
East Bay surged back to 11-10 with 14 minutes left in the half.
The Tritons kept their composure in the backcourt, but the offense broke down on several occasions against a stout Cal State East Bay defense, forcing Brue and McCann to create opportunities off the dribble.
With the forced offense, East Bay had several break away chances, pushing the Tritons out of their motion-oriented attack. Forced into a “run and gun” situation, the Tritons started to tire quickly, with senior forward Christian Hatch looking bogged down at the eight-minute mark, further slowing the offense and making it easy for Cal State East Bay to push the tempo even more.
Cal State East Bay freshman Jicari Whitman hit three three-pointers in the closing minutes of the first half as the Pioneers stretched their lead to 26-37 on a 2-11 run.
Brue checked back into the game after two of the threes and single handedly re-ignited the Tritons.
Brue made a block to set up a left-handed hook shot back on his end of the court, and then followed with a driving layup to bring the score to within seven, forcing the Pioneers to take a timeout.
Brue continued his streak, catching the ball in the corner and driving to the rim and spinning off the Pioneer defenders for another basket.
Pumped up, Brue fouled East Bay’s Mark Samuels and allowed the Pioneers two points.
Brue then made two more blocks to end the half on a 6-2 UCSD run to make it 32-39.
Coming off halftime, the Tritons tried to settle into a rhythm with their motion offense, but could not find a hole in the Pioneer defense.
Brue had another block to set up a nice pass from McCann to Hatch for an easy bucket that helped spark a 13-6 Triton run, to make it a one-point game.
Junior Tyler McGrath helped solidify the run with an amazing defensive run in the middle of the half as he drew a charge from Whitfield, then blocked another Pioneer to keep the score 45-46 and the momentum in Triton hands.
East Bay moved the ball well and took good shots against the Triton man defense, but McGrath then took another charge to really get the crowd on their feet.
Brue took advantage and hit a turn around jumper for the lead.
At this point, both teams’ half court offenses started deteriorating.
The Tritons had four turnovers in two minutes, but managed to hang on and retake the lead, 52-51.
The lead changed hands several times as the time wound down, but things began to swing towards the Tritons, as UCSD head coach Chris Carlson switched from a zone defense to a man defense.
This change forced Cal State East Bay to stop relying on their perimeter and open shots, and work in side.
With the clock winding down, McCann took the out of bounds throw-in for the Tritons, but the Pioneer guarding him turned his back to guard against the alley-oop.
McCann threw the ball off his backside and hit the open jumper to put the Tritons ahead with a minute to go.
In the final seconds, Hatch was fouled with the score in UCSD’s favor 69-67.
To win the game, he needed to hit both shots. He hit one of two, setting up Cal State East Bay’s junior Jason Smith for the open three-pointer to send the game into overtime.
“You know it comes down to defense,” said Brue after the game, “That’s a win or a loss right there, defending that three-pointer. Instead we let him shoot a wide open shot.”
Although the Tritons left to an early five-point lead, they let the Pioneers come back to within a point with 40 seconds remaining.
Because both teams were in double bonus, the Pioneers subbed in all guards on offense and all forwards on defense as the two teams traded free throws for the remainder of the game.
In the end, the Tritons hit only 18 of 30 freethrows while the Pioneers sank 19 of 22.
With the Tritons up 79-78, Pioneer leading scorer Mark Samuels drove to the bucket with only five seconds remaining to sink the winning bucket for the final score of 79-80.
McCann had a chance to make a final runner from behind the arc, but he wasn’t granted the shooter’s roll as it rattled out to end the game.
McCann finished with a career high of 22 points and seven assists, while Hatch trailed with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Brue had a 15-point game with six rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals.
For the team to have played so well against a Pioneer team that recently beat No. 2 Nationally-ranked Cal Poly Pomona was impressive.
Although the Tritons faired better the next night against 1-7 CCAA opponent Cal State Monterey Bay.
The Tritons lost Hatch to a sprained wrist sustained in the loss Friday, so senior center Ryan Wheeler stepped into the center position for the Tritons and handled the pressure quite well, scoring six and nabbing four rebounds.
Where he stood out most was on defense, as he stopped anything driving down the middle.
Junior guard Tyler McGrath continued his lackluster offensive streak, hitting only 1-8.
Although McGrath sunk a three to put the Tritons ahead 60-54.
Again down the stretch he hit two freethrows with only four seconds left to solidify the Triton win 71-67.
McCann had a good night, hitting four of five from behind the arc and scoring 19 points, the same as Brue, who was 7-9 from the free-throw line.
The Tritons have shown improvement in their past two games, displaying the type of hustle needed to turn around their season.
At 2-8 in conference play, it will be a long road but they still have a shot at a postseason run or a CCAA championship.