UC San Diego’s men’s basketball squad has had a chaotic start to the season; their intended season opener, as well as their New Year’s Day Big West and Division I debut, were cancelled due to COVID-related issues.
But after having an intended series at California State University Northridge cancelled, the Tritons were able to schedule back-to-back games at RIMAC Arena against defending Big West champions UC Irvine. While the first game was postponed due to a UCSD player with possible COVID symptoms who later tested negative, the Tritons suited up Jan. 9 for their D-I debuts — but despite jumping out to an early lead, the Anteaters began to pull away in the second half to secure the win, 79–65.
The Tritons, coming off of a 17-day layoff, were without senior guard Mikey Howell, who was out with a non-COVID illness, which led to redshirt freshman guard Jace Roquemore making his first career start. UCSD had it going early, with a stifling defensive start helping them out to an 11–2 lead in the first seven minutes of play. Roquemore’s fastbreak layup with 18:07 remaining in the first half scored UCSD’s first two Division I points.
The Tritons would not give up a field goal to the Anteaters until 12:16 remaining in the first half, and while Irvine would quickly tie the score at 20, UCSD regained the momentum with an 8–4 run to close out the first half with a 28–24 lead. The Anteaters made just eight of their 27 field goal attempts in the first half, including a chilly 0 for 8 from behind the arc.
However, coming out of halftime the teams were on level terms, going back and forth with the lead for the first five minutes of the second half. Unfortunately for the Tritons, the Anteaters found the three-point touch that had eluded them in the first period, and their 15–4 run gave them a 50–39 lead with 10:35 to go. While Roquemore and graduate-transfer guard Jake Killingsworth tried to chip away at the UC Irvine lead with three-pointers, it was too little, too late for the Tritons, as the Anteaters held their double-digit lead for most of the remainder of the match for a 79–65 win.
Despite the loss, it wasn’t all bad for the Tritons, especially as they came into the game against the twice-defending Big West champs with little tuneup opportunity and as significant underdogs. Redshirt freshman guard Bryce Pope and junior forward transfer Toni Rocak each had career scoring highs, with 21 and 20 points, respectively, with Rocak doing so off the bench.
Saturday’s game was technically considered a non-conference game in the record books, as it will not replace the two teams’ official Big West matchups on Feb. 26 and 27. Nonetheless, the match was UCSD’s first look since 2000 at an opponent they’ll be facing yearly going forward.
If anything, as head coach Eric Olen told UCSD Athletics after the game, the Tritons are largely just happy to finally be playing D-I basketball.
“We’ve waited a long time to play a Division I game, a Big West opponent… But I thought our guys were ready to go and we played really hard,” said Olen.
Still, UCSD will be disappointed to have their 24-game win streak, dating back to December 2019, snapped, and would have certainly liked to shock the Anteaters in their first D-I matchup. Nevertheless, the Tritons will still have a chance to win their first official Big West conference game, currently scheduled to be at UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 15.
Photo courtesy of UCSD Athletics