Pope’s heroics help Tritons defeat Anteaters in OT thriller

Pope’s heroics help Tritons defeat Anteaters in OT thriller
Photo by Keita Kobayashi/ UCSD Guardian

Four seconds left, Tritons down 3. Sophomore guard Camden McCormick races down the floor. He passes it to Bryce Pope, the redshirt senior guard and talisman of this Triton team. Pope takes a deep contested 3 as the clock counts down. 


If this was any other player, I would be nervous. But I don’t have to be. Because this isn’t your average player. This is Bryce Pope, the highest-scoring Triton in the Division I era. In one of the biggest games of his career, he came to play, scoring 25 points so far. And as the ball sailed toward the net, there was no doubt that it was going in. With less than a second remaining, UC San Diego had tied it up at 81, sending the game to overtime.


The regulation-ending shot served as the climax of the highly anticipated Big West matchup Saturday afternoon. UCSD (19–9, 13–3 Big West) would go on to beat UC Irvine (20–8, 13–3 Big West) in the ensuing overtime, 92–88. Senior guard Bryce Pope was the man of the hour, scoring a career-high 32 points, including the game-tying 3 to end the fourth quarter.


The game was a crucial one to both teams. Since conference play began, the Tritons and Anteaters had been consistently within the top three spots, along with UC Davis. However, a recent three-game slump from the Aggies saw them fall down to third in the standings, with UC Irvine in first and UCSD in second. So with only 5 games left in the season, this game could decide who ends as regular season champions. If the Anteaters won, they would extend their lead at the top of the standings to 2 games, a gap that would be difficult to overcome. On the other hand, a win for the Tritons would see the two rivals tied at the top of the Big West standings, and give them a chance to go on to win the conference regular season title.


For UCSD, this would be a monumental achievement. It would mark their first major accomplishment since beginning the transition to Division I four years ago. Due to Big West and NCAA rules, they are unable to compete in the Big West conference tournament and March Madness, leaving conference regular season champions as the one major honor they can receive. 


Triton head coach Eric Olen, who has guided the team through transition, echoed that sentiment.


“We don’t get to play for all the championships, but we’re trying to win the one that we can,” he said.


And to players like Pope, a La Jolla native who has spent 5 years with the program, this is what they’ve been working toward all season.


“That’s been the goal all year long,” Pope said after the game. “We have a special group of guys in the locker room and it’d be huge for us to secure a Big West regular season title.”


In the first half, this looked unlikely. UCSD found themselves in a hole, down by double digits to the Anteaters. The Tritons finally found their stride as a series of stops paired with strong shooting led to a 12–0 run that saw the Tritons take a three-point lead. However, Irvine was able to retake the lead and entered halftime up 41–40.


In the second half, UCSD started strong. Junior guard Tyler McGhie scored back-to-back threes, followed by jumpers from junior forward Francis Nwaokorie and Pope as the Tritons leaped to an 11-point lead. But this is UCSD basketball, so leads are not built to last. While Irvine initially struggled to close the gap, they would eventually go on a 16–4 run late in the game to take a one-point lead. During this stretch, redshirt senior forward J’Raan Brooks and Tyler McGhie both fouled out and the Tritons made only one field goal in 7 minutes.


“I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable up 10 with 8 minutes to go,” Olen said about the lead. “That’s an eternity in college basketball, especially against a team as good as Irvine. There was no point in that game or second half where we felt like ‘we had it’ or ‘we should definitely win this game.’ We knew how much was left, we knew that the foul trouble was gonna be problematic down the stretch. Our guys did a really good job of just staying poised as they made the run.”


As the game approached the final minute, the atmosphere in Liontree Arena grew tense. Junior forward Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones flew into the paint for a layup to give the Tritons the lead again, only for Irvine to take it back with a shot beyond the arc. Down by 2 with 35 seconds left, the Tritons desperately needed to convert on this possession to tie or take the lead. However, they struggled to find an opening, as Olen called his final 2 timeouts on the possession. Following the timeouts, they still couldn’t find a gap, and tossed up a poor shot as the shot clock expired. The Anteaters grabbed the rebound and Tait-Jones intentionally fouled, needing at least 1 missed free throw for the Tritons to stay alive. Irvine missed 1 of 2 free throws and the Tritons had 4 seconds left to tie up the game down 3. Pope then scored the game-tying 3 to send the game to overtime.


“I saw my teammate Camden McCormick dribbling at me and I was able to get a little bit of space,” Pope said, reflecting on the shot. “I was a little stressed [before the shot]. They came back at the end of regulation and took the lead. But the ball felt good out of my hand and I’m happy it went in.”


In overtime, the Tritons were able to take the lead thanks to an outstanding defensive performance where they prevented the Anteaters from scoring for the final 2 and a half minutes. A late three-point attempt from Irvine to win the game proved futile and Tait-Jones was able to close out the match at the free throw line.


After UCSD’s victory, the Tritons and Anteaters are tied at the top of the Big West standings with 4 games left to go for each team. And with losses later that evening for third and fourth place UC Davis and Long Beach State, the battle for the regular season crown looks like a two-horse race.


“We feel great about where we are but there’s still a little left in the race,” Olen said regarding the prospect of winning the regular season title. “I think our guys have been really consistent in their approach to everything and if we continue to do that, we give ourselves a great opportunity.”


This win marks the fourth straight for the Tritons, who are one win away from their first 20 win season in Division I. They will go on the road to take on CSU Bakersfield on Thursday night and CSU Northridge on Saturday as they continue their charge for the Big West regular season title.

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Keita Kobayashi
Keita Kobayashi, Photo Editor
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