UC San Diego Men’s Basketball (6–10, 1–3 Big West) squandered what was at one point an 18-point lead at the LionTree Arena against the UC Riverside Highlanders (11–6, 4–1 Big West). For the Tritons, sophomore forward Francis Nwaokorie scored a season-high 20 points, along with 8 rebounds. Despite some big performances, the Tritons once again struggled to close out a Big West matchup.
In a high-scoring first few minutes of play, the Tritons moved the ball around and enjoyed a balanced offense. But UC Riverside’s explosive shooting helped the Highlanders to a 14–10 opening run. After that, the furious exchange of scoring continued with redshirt junior Emmanuel Tshimanga drawing a foul for the Tritons on a successful layup to punctuate the hot offense with the and-one play. Redshirt junior guard Bryce Pope converted the free throw to give UCSD their first lead of the game at 19–18. A 9–2 run to close out the half then helped the Tritons gain a 13-point lead to go into the half with a 40–27 scoreline, with the Tritons’ balanced scoring effort leading the way.
The Triton lead kept on growing as the second half commenced, with redshirt junior guard Jace Roquemore hitting a big dunk on a steal from freshman guard Roddie Anderson III. Nwaokorie in particular was dominant, getting rebounds on both sides of the court and muscling his way into the paint. The team seemed to build on his energy and, 11 minutes into the second half, the Triton lead had swelled to 18 points, the highest of the night. A 7–2 Highlanders run helped cut the lead to 11 going into the next timeout, but the Tritons still appeared to be too much to handle for Riverside.
UC Riverside Coach Mike Magpayo certainly said something to his players, who came out and cut the margin to just two points. All of a sudden, the Highlanders were on fire after losing their hot shooting streak in the early part of the first half. The Tritons’ defense was nowhere to be found as the lead was cut to two. Shortly thereafter, the Highlanders recaptured the lead to go up three points with 20 seconds remaining. The 28–6 crushing run put a huge damper on the Tritons’ hopes to take a Big West game, but it was not over yet.
An important drive to the basket from Pope gave the Tritons some hope, but the seven seconds left in the game meant the Tritons had to intentionally foul, and the Highlanders did not surrender their momentum by hitting both free throws. The Tritons called timeout but failed to capitalize, and a three-point shot from the Highlanders was good to give them a 6-point win, to the disappointment of the packed student section at the LionTree Arena.
The Tritons were left to rue their second-half performance, where they shot 32.1% from the field and 20% from outside the arc, as opposed to 55.2% and 30%, respectively, in the first half. The Tritons also committed 16 turnovers to the Highlanders’ 7 and converted just four second-chance points to Riverside’s 20. Despite spending 28 minutes of the game in front, a lack of efficiency in the second half cost the Tritons a much-needed win to bounce back after last week’s loss to University of Hawaii.
Triton Coach Eric Olen was contemplative afterward.
“When you have situations like that where you let games get away, it’s usually not just one thing”, Olen said after the game. Regarding whether this loss hurt more than others, he said that “at the end of the day, they all count the same.”
One positive note, however, was the loud support for UCSD, something certainly noticed by Olen.
“That’s been awesome, all year,” Olen said, adding that “our guys feel that.”
The Tritons will certainly hope for such support when, after an away game at CSU Bakersfield on Saturday, the team returns to the LionTree Arena on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to face UC Davis at 3 p.m. for more Big West action.
Photo Courtesy of Keita Kobayashi