For Triton Basketball, A Disjointed Start to First Division I Season

Edit (Jan. 7): UCSD’s men’s team has now announced back-to-back games for Jan. 8 and 9 against UC Irvine, as a result of both teams’ opponents cancelling those days’ matches due to positive COVID tests.

All eyes are on UC San Diego’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, and not just because they’ll finally be making a long-awaited debut in Division I and the Big West. As of Jan. 1, basketball is the only winter sport at UCSD with even an announced schedule, with the seasons for every other sport still up in the air. But even for the men’s and women’s basketball squads, the first couple of weeks of the season have been rife with COVID-related cancellations, one of which even occurred mid-game — but all those issues were forgotten this weekend, as the women’s team won their first Division I and Big West game of the season.

With a full non-conference schedule unlikely given the circumstances, both teams scheduled a couple of tuneup games against Southern California competition before scheduled Big West season openers against California Polytechnic State University on Jan. 1 and 2. The men’s team had planned their first game of the season against San Diego Christian College for Dec. 20, but this game was cancelled “due to COVID testing concerns involving the [SDCC] program,” per UCSD Athletics.

The next day, on Dec. 21, coach Heidi VanDerveer’s women’s team did manage to open their season off against a Division I opponent in California Baptist University, but in an unfortunate turn of events, the game was cancelled during halftime due to, once again, COVID testing concerns from the opposing team. At the time of cancellation, UCSD led 28–25 off of 12 points from senior guard Tyla Turner and a seven-point, five-rebound performance from junior guard Sydney Brown. With the stoppage occurring before the game’s first 30 minutes, the contest will not be counted as an official game.

On Dec. 22, however, the men’s team was finally able to complete a match, defeating the University of Saint Katherine (a NAIA university in San Marcos with just 300 full-time-equivalent students) 77–51. UCSD jumped out to an early 19–0 lead and never looked back, led in scoring by graduate transfer guard Jake Killingsworth and senior guard Gabe Hadley, who scored 15 and 14 points, respectively. “It was great to be back out there in a competitive situation, we’ve been practicing for a long time,” head coach Eric Olen told UCSD Athletics. “Our guys have done a really good job of being patient, working hard.”

The next night, the Triton men once again steamrolled Saint Katherine 75–39, after accumulating a 40–15 lead at halftime. Killingsworth once again led the squad in scoring with 13, and redshirt senior guard Mikey Howell (who last season broke the UCSD season record for assists) turned in a nice all-around performance with 10 points, 5 assists, and 5 steals. The Tritons smothered the Firebird offense, forcing 24 turnovers, including 6 steals from newcomer junior forward Toni Rocak and 5 from Howell; the 39 points allowed was the fewest by UCSD since November 2015. With the win, their 24th in a row, the Triton men also completed a perfect 21–0 record during the 2020 calendar year, having won every contest since a loss to Chico State in December 2019.

Unfortunately, more game cancellations would follow for UCSD. The men’s team had their Big West debut games at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo cancelled on Dec. 26 due to a positive COVID test on the Cal Poly team. By Dec. 31, both the men’s and women’s programs had their games against California State University, Northridge, intended for Jan. 8 and 9, cancelled, with UCSD Athletics reporting a positive COVID test among the CSUN men’s team. With this cancellation, and with the Big West choosing not to reschedule unplayed games, the men’s team will not open their inaugural Big West season until, at the earliest, Jan. 15 at UC Santa Barbara.

But after the halftime cancellation against California Baptist, the Triton women’s team was able to play their first official Big West and Division I game at RIMAC Arena on Jan. 1 against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but fell to the Mustangs 90–68. It started off as a close one for the Tritons, as Cal Poly led by just one point at halftime; notably, Sydney Brown’s three-pointer with 6:48 to go in the first quarter scored UCSD’s first Division I points. But UCSD was outscored 24–14 and 23–12 in the third and fourth quarters, and Cal Poly was able to pull away for the win. The Tritons were without reigning CCAA Most Valuable Player Julia Macabuhay, and were led in scoring by Turner with 13; meanwhile, in her first official game, freshman forward Aishah Brown led the Tritons with 8 rebounds.

But it was a different story the next afternoon, as after a long wait, UCSD’s women’s team notched the program’s first ever Division I and Big West win, defeating Cal Poly 74–63. The Tritons went on a 30–13 run from just after halfway through the first quarter to halftime, and despite a strong showing from Cal Poly from the free-throw line and on the offensive glass, the Tritons led by double digits for all but 30 seconds of the fourth quarter.

The win was keyed by a stifling defensive performance from UCSD, who held the Mustangs to just 23 points in the first half, and prevented Cal Poly point guard Abbey Ellis, who had scored 31 the night before, from making a single field goal in the first half. Cal Poly shot just 3-for-23 from downtown throughout the game. But for the Tritons, the clear star of the game was Sydney Brown, who put up career and game highs with 31 points and 14 rebounds. Brown, who put up the Triton women’s most points in a game since November 2018, also secured the win with a 13-point fourth quarter.

Yet even with the milestone win, both UCSD basketball teams face an uncertain future. Eight of the program’s first twelve games have been cancelled, and neither team is scheduled to play again until Jan. 15 and 16 against UCSB. But if only for the evening, the Tritons can revel in the long-awaited celebration of their first Division I win. “I don’t remember a lot of wins, but this one will be [remembered],” said VanDerveer. “This team worked hard, and losing last night and responding this afternoon was great for our team.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Stephens / UC San Diego Athletics

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