Friday’s game against Sonoma State began poorly for the Tritons as the Seawolves’ freshman Justin Herold ran backside and caught an alley-oop, slamming over two Triton defenders for the opening points of the game. The Tritons traded points in the following possession, attacking Sonoma’s 2-3 zone defense with an overload offense.
Six of the first eight Seawolves’ points came from above the rim, as the Tritons struggled to defend the more athletic Sonoma squad, with the Seawolves surging ahead 2-7 in the first two minutes.
UCSD adjusted, locking down the low post and forcing Sonoma to take lower percentage outside shots. Senior guard Justin Brue and sophomore guard James McCann led the Tritons on a 13-point run to make it 15-7 by the 11-minute mark.
With six minutes left in the half, UCSD pushed forward, as the players gapped the Wolves 25-13.
The advantage pushed Sonoma into a full-court man defense in an attempt to stop the Triton post-play, led by senior forward Ryan Wheeler. Wheeler — who has seen a dramatic increase in his minutes in the past few games — played well coming off the bench, nabbing nine points and two rebounds.
But the Tritons struggled to break the press and went scoreless to the end of the half (with the exception of one jumper from junior guard Tyler McGrath). After blowing a 12-point lead, the Tritons ended the first period down 29-26.
In the second half, the Seawolves pressed on and off as the Tritons dropped the tempo and continued with their motion offense. Wheeler remained dynamic on the boards, as he subbed in as relief for senior forward Christian Hatch, who was playing with an injured wrist. Sophomore guard MacKenzie McCullough — replacing junior Ryan Peters, who suffered from a concussion in the previous game against Monterey Bay — also played well down the stretch, scoring eight points while pulling down a team-high seven rebounds and two assists.
Once more, in the waning minutes the Tritons looked to Brue and McCann, who had 13 and 18 points, respectively. Brue pulled down seven rebounds to match McCullough, while McCann threw three assists to make the score 60-50 with just under three minutes left to play.
With a 10-point cushion, the Tritons relaxed, allowing the Seawolves to cut the lead down to one with 24 seconds remaining.
In their one-point loss last weekend, the Tritons let slip another 10-point lead with mere seconds remaining on the clock.
But this time, McCann hit his free throws to put the Tritons out of harm’s reach as they took the 63-62 victory.
Saturday against Humboldt State, the Tritons took the early lead going 16-13 after the first 10 minutes of play.
But showing fatigue, Carlson fell to digging into his bench. With McGrath the only starter left on the floor, the Lumberjacks took the lead and never looked back, taking advantage of the flagging Triton starters and the inexperienced Triton bench to take a 25-34 lead.
Humboldt relied heavily on their post-play, with 6’9” 265 lb junior center Matt Lipski taking up space in the key, limiting the effectiveness of both Hatch and Wheeler, who had only four points and one point, respectively. Four of the starting five for the Lumberjacks were taller than 6’5”, with the exception of 5’5” point guard D.J. Broome.
Hulking 6’9” Lumberjack guard Kyle Baxter scored a game high 23 points. With his height, Baxter was easily able to either post up against smaller guards or get around the Tritons’ slower forwards. With a clean jumper to boot, Baxter was clearly the best player on the floor.
With 15 minutes left in the game, the Jacks still held an 11-point advantage, leading 39-50. But Triton shooter McGrath started lighting up to keep the Tritons in the game, hitting four three-pointers down the stretch.
Coming down to the wire, McGrath hit the three-pointer that started to turn the tide with five minutes remaining. Wheeler pulled down a great rebound in the next possession, making way for a McCann three-pointer off the resulting fast break with two minutes remaining.
McGrath then hit two free throws, keeping the gap at four, until senior Mike Meza sunk a long corner three-pointer to bring the Tritons to within one point.
With the score 64-65, the Tritons had the ball with only 11 seconds remaining. McCann inbounded the ball, going coast to coast for a jumper with two seconds left for the win. The attempt rattled out, but McCullough had a chance to put it back up, though the shot fell out as the horn sounded to end the game.
“We need to work on closing games,” McCann said. “We lost two of our last four in very close games, but [we] have had good practices throughout [the past few weeks].”
In the past few games, the bright spots for UCSD have come from the bench, who McCann said, “have really stepped up, even though we have some guys hurt.”
“The next step is getting [a win] on the road,” McCann said. “We haven’t had one yet, but I’m really excited about this weekend’s games.”
This coming weekend the Tritons go on the road to face Cal Poly Pomona next Thursday, followed by bottom-of-the-conference, San Francisco State on Saturday.