In the final series of what has been a brief inaugural season as a Division I team, UC San Diego’s men’s basketball team (7–10, 4–8 Big West) ended on a high note with two close wins against California State University, Fullerton, winning 89–85 on March 5 and 85–78 on March 6. Redshirt senior guard Mikey Howell had 27 assists over the two games, and in his final contest as a Triton, he became UCSD’s all-time leader in assists with 502.
The Tritons entered this series against the CSUF Titans after two double-digit losses on the road against UC Irvine. However, UCSD looked like a different team at the outset of the first match against Fullerton, as three early three-pointers, two from graduate guard Jake Killingsworth, had them up 11–2 with just over two minutes off the clock. When the Titans began to chip away at the gap, the Tritons got a boost from 2 threes on consecutive possessions from junior guard Kaden Rasheed off the bench, both assisted by Howell.
That explosive offense from UCSD hit a rough patch down the stretch in the first half, as CSUF rattled off a 14–2 run to take the lead; the Tritons couldn’t get anything going on their end, missing six straight shots at one point, to go along with a spate of turnovers. UCSD would regain their footing before things got too out of hand however, and both teams played back-and-forth ball to close out the half, with the Titans up 43–41.
Both offenses were slow out of the gate in the second half, but a big three-pointer from senior guard Gabe Hadley with 15:42 remaining had the Tritons up four. UCSD and Fullerton traded baskets for a few more minutes, before another three from Hadley followed by a Killingsworth free throw and a layup from junior forward Toni Rocak put UCSD up double digits, 73–61. While the Tritons were able to hold onto their lead, the Titans cut the deficit to just 3 points with 33 seconds remaining in the game on a pair of free throws. But redshirt freshman guard Jace Roquemore hit a free throw with 11 seconds remaining to push the Triton lead to 4, and Fullerton missed the desperation three at the other end, giving UCSD the win, 89–85.
It was a great shooting night from the field for the Tritons, as they made 34 of their 65 field goals (52.3 percent) and shot a blistering 16 of 33 (48.5 percent) from behind the arc. That wasn’t the case from the free-throw line, however, as UCSD hit just five of their 16 foul shots for a disappointing 31.3 percent. Hadley led the Tritons with 21 points, followed by 19 each from Killingsworth and senior forward Hugh Baxter, who also led the team with 6 three-pointers and nine rebounds; Howell had a game-high 14 assists, totaling as many as the entire Fullerton squad combined.
In addition to being the season finale, the second game of the series was Senior Night for the Tritons, and they started an all-senior lineup with Baxter, Hadley, Howell, Killingsworth, and senior forward Martin Tombe. Unlike in the previous game, it was the Titans who would have the advantage early, as CSUF held a slim lead for the opening of the first half. A Killingsworth triple knotted the game up with 11:12 remaining in the half, but UCSD couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to get ahead. A few minutes later, consecutive paint jumpers from Howell, Rocak, and Hadley gave the Tritons a 4-point lead, but Fullerton would strike back, taking the lead and holding it until halftime, with the score 39–35.
The match remained close, and while the Tritons were able to get small leads on a few occasions, they could never hold them for more than a couple possessions. But starting with a fastbreak score from Rasheed to take the lead with 11:39 remaining, UCSD scored on ten consecutive possessions over six minutes; still, their lead was just three after a missed layup by Hadley broke the streak and the Titans hit a three-pointer. With just 1:08 to go, the Tritons led by just three, but Howell hit a massive shot from downtown to put them up six, and after CSUF missed their next attempt, Hadley and Killingsworth each drained two shots from the charity stripe to ice the game for a UCSD win, 85–78.
As great of a shooting performance as the previous night had been for the Tritons, Saturday’s win was even better, as UCSD shot 34 for 57 (59.6 percent) from the field and 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) from downtown; even their free throw shooting was improved, as the Tritons hit seven of their 10 shots, including four big ones in the final minute to seal the win. Rocak was the leading scorer for UCSD, with a career-high 26 coming off of the bench on 12-of-16 shooting.
But the biggest story of the series was Mikey Howell, who now holds the career record for assists in UCSD men’s basketball history with 502, to go alongside the single-season record, which he broke last season with 215; he took the career record from Darvin Jackson, who racked up 496 assists between 1988 and 1992. Howell’s record is especially impressive for a player whose final season was shortened by the pandemic and the team’s lack of eligibility for the postseason. But that didn’t stop Howell, who ended the season on the highest of notes — his 14 assists on Friday and 13 on Saturday against Fullerton both bested his previous career high of 12.
With the wins, the Tritons finish their season at 7–10 overall and 4–8 in the Big West. In addition to the truncated season and several cancellations, UCSD also faces a postseason moratorium as part of their transition to Division I.
“I don’t know if everyone understands what we’re asking them to do,” said head coach Eric Olen of the unusual season. “They made a lot of sacrifices, made great decisions, and put the team and the program above each individual, and I’m really proud of those guys and very appreciative of the whole group for letting this season happen for us.”
Yet even with the postseason ban and an opening Division I season marred by uncertainty, regular season wins like the ones against Fullerton show that even if the Tritons won’t compete for the conference title right away, they’re far from being a Big West doormat.
“It’s all about confidence. We struggled throughout the season to put together good halves back to back … We finally put together two games where we competed the whole time. They went on some runs, and we answered every run they went on,” said Killingsworth, a transfer from Columbia University who has certainly made a mark in his lone season at UCSD. “The next step is just to get these guys back in and start working, and hopefully get a little bit bigger and stronger so we don’t get bullied around too much. But it’s a great stepping stone, a great end to the first year, and a lot of upside here for these guys.”
Photo courtesy of Scott Flanders / UC San Diego Athletics