Men’s Basketball Suffers First Losses of Season in Zootown Classic

Playing in the Zootown Classic midseason tournament at the University of Montana, the UC San Diego’s men’s basketball team (4–2) suffered their first two losses of the season, dropping games to Montana and the University of Southern Mississippi, 71–61 and 56–55, respectively. The consecutive losses will take some of the luster off the 4–0 start for the Tritons, as they made their first trip out of California since 2019.

In the first game on Nov. 24 against Montana, the Tritons were in a hole early against the home side, going down 13–6 out of the gate. Three-pointers from graduate guard Jake Killingsworth and freshman forward Francis Nwaokorie kept UCSD in the match, but the Tritons couldn’t get within a score as the Montana defense kept the clamps on them. But after going down 25–18 with 7:02 left in the first half, the Tritons’ senior forward and leading scorer Toni Rocak made a paint bucket, followed by another paint score from Nwaokorie and a triple from Killingsworth on consecutive possessions to level the score at 25. UCSD couldn’t take the lead, however, and the Grizzlies were able to carry a slim 32–29 lead into halftime.

The Tritons didn’t change the tide of the game exiting the tunnel for the second half, as jumper after jumper from Montana gave them a quick 8–3 run and an 8-point lead with 17:19 remaining. UCSD remained on the wrong foot down the stretch in the second half, as the Montana defense kept them from making a run for the lead. After a pair of free throws from Nwaokorie made it 51–45 with 9:21 to go, the Grizzlies put the game virtually out of reach with a 10–0 run, featuring a pair of free throws, 2 scores from behind the arc, and a paint jumper. While Nwaokorie and Rocak were effective towards the end of the game in a comeback effort, UCSD never got within 6 and suffered their first loss of the season, 71–61.

The Triton loss could largely be chalked up to turnovers, as UCSD committed 17 to the Grizzlies’ 7; Montana had 8 steals and 15 points off of turnovers, while the Tritons didn’t even record a single steal. Those extra possessions added up, as UCSD’s loss came despite outrebounding Montana 38–24 and shooting an identical 45.5% mark to the Grizzlies. Nwaokorie was a bright spot for the Tritons in 31 minutes off the bench, recording 22 points and 8 rebounds, both team highs.

Perhaps in recognition of the previous night’s performance, Nwaokorie made his first career start on Thanksgiving against Southern Mississippi. The Tritons were on fire to start the game, going up 15–6 in the first 7 minutes on a barrage of 4 three-pointers from 4 different players. The Golden Eagles cut into that lead with 6 straight points, and the match turned into a low-scoring affair down the stretch in the first half as UCSD held on to the slimmest of leads. But after Southern Miss drew within 3 towards the end of the half, the Tritons scored the next 6 points, including back-to-back points in the paint for redshirt sophomore guard Bryce Pope, and UCSD looked ready to put the last night’s loss behind them as they went into the half up 30–21.

That lead began to fall away slowly in the second half, and by the halfway point of the period, the Golden Eagles had completed a 16–6 run to take the lead with 10:51 remaining. Nwaokorie scored a three-pointer on the next possession to take the lead back, but UCSD couldn’t regain the lead for long, and it became clear the contest would go down to the wire.

Still, the Tritons looked in better shape, as they were in the lead more often than not in the final few minutes. Indeed, a 5–0 run capped off by a Killingsworth bucket gave UCSD a five-point lead and provisional control of the game with under 3 minutes to go. Unfortunately for the Tritons, those would be their last points of the contest.

Southern Mississippi’s Isaih Moore made a quick jumper to respond, and on the other end, Rocak missed a key layup. Southern Miss drew fouls on their next two possessions, and all 4 free throws were good to give the Golden Eagles a 56–55 lead with 1:43 remaining. On the next possession, Pope missed a three, and while Rocak grabbed the offensive rebound, he promptly had the ball stolen, but Southern Miss missed their own attempt on the other end of the floor.

With 40 seconds to go, Rocak missed another would-be go-ahead bucket in the paint, but UCSD wasn’t out of it yet, as enough time remained on the clock to theoretically allow them another possession. However, after the Golden Eagles’ shot was off target, Moore grabbed the offensive rebound, and the Tritons began to foul. Southern Miss, however, did not score their free throw attempt, giving the Tritons one more chance out of a timeout, but no shot materialized, and the game ended after almost 2 minutes of absolute stalemate, a 56–55 win for Southern Miss.

Pope, with 15 points, was the only Triton to score double figures in the game, as UCSD scored their lowest point total of the season for the second straight day. While turnovers weren’t as imbalanced as the night before, the key for the Golden Eagles was their bench, with the Southern Miss bench outscoring the starters with 31 points, compared to just 8 for the Tritons’ bench.

While UCSD was scheduled to play the University of North Carolina, Wilmington the next day, the Seahawks had dropped out of the tournament 2 days earlier due to a flu outbreak among the team, and the Tritons ended their trip to Montana empty-handed after coming in with significant momentum. The UCSD squad will next return to RIMAC Arena to host Eastern Michigan University on Dec. 2, then take a 10-day break before travelling to play Seattle University on Dec. 12.

Image courtesy of Jeff Tourial / UC San Diego Athletics