Tritons close out historic season with win against Cal Poly

Tritons close out historic season with win against Cal Poly
Photo by Sophie Nourbakhsh/ UCSD Guardian

On Saturday afternoon, UC San Diego men’s basketball (21–11, 15–5 Big West) beat out California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo (4–28, 0–20 Big West) in a close 92–87 match, for the closing game of their historic season. Junior forward Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones and senior guard Bryce Pope led the way for the Tritons, scoring 24 and 22 points, respectively.


For many of the Triton players and the fans in the audience, the game itself was fairly inconsequential. It was Senior Night, and with the Tritons having already secured second place in the conference, this was a chance to give the seniors a proper send-off and celebrate all they’ve accomplished during one of the most unique eras in UCSD men’s basketball history.


Among the seniors were Pope, center Emmanuel Tshimanga, forward J’Raan Brooks, and manager Jonah Simental, who were there with their families and friends.


“They’ve all made huge contributions in their own way,” head coach Eric Olen said. “They have each been a big part of elevating our program to where we are now. We feel really good about the progress that we made and they’ve all been a big part of it.”


Pope, one of the seniors, spoke about what the night meant to him.


“I knew it was going to be an emotional day being Senior Night,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you [never thought] were ever going to really happen, but here it is. Walking into shootaround today, I was kind of looking around the building and just realizing that this could potentially be my last game in Liontree Arena.”


Though the seniors would get to celebrate with their families and friends later, they first had to face Cal Poly, a team that has notched a conference record of 15–103 in the last seven years and had yet to win a conference game this season. A 20th straight loss would be a historic low for the program, making it the first team in the modern Big West era (post-2000) to not win a single conference game in a season.


The game started tight, with both teams shooting well. However, UCSD went on a 10–0 run to pull away, featuring a stunning poster dunk from Tait-Jones. The Tritons were able to expand their lead up to 18, but the Mustangs stormed back and were able to decrease the Triton lead to 3. Cal Poly didn’t have enough left in the tank, and UCSD was able to hold on and close out the game on free throws.


The win was a fitting end to a historic season, having been in the regular season title hunt up until the final week and finishing only two games behind champions UC Irvine. Though the title evaded them, the year is still one that many on the team are incredibly proud of.


“The season has been better than anything I would have expected,” Pope said. “This program has come a long way in the Division I era, and our goal was to win a regular-season championship, but obviously we still had a great year.”


They may not have won the title, but Olen believes that setting high expectations for players such as Pope have helped the team play better.


“I think something that’s been important for our program is just the expectation level going up,” Olen said. “I think everybody in our locker room had really high expectations for what we could accomplish this year, and you don’t always meet every goal that you set, but I think when you set your expectations high and you set your standards high for how you’re going to operate, then you give yourself the best chance. I thought our guys gave us the best chance to accomplish everything we could this year, and [I’m] just really proud of the whole group and the effort and all the things that went into it.”


While expectations were high in the locker room, there wasn’t much fanfare surrounding the team before the season. The Tritons finished ninth in the Big West the previous season, and the Big West Preseason Coach’s Poll, voted on by coaches from Big West teams, predicted them finishing in the same spot. At the beginning of the season, the Tritons did well, with four straight wins in LionTree, but dropped their next three in a road trip to Seattle University.


Then came the battle against crosstown opponents San Diego State University, who had competed in the national championship game six months prior and entered the season ranked. Many were predicting a comfortable SDSU victory. Instead, in an incredible performance, the Tritons held the Aztecs in check, holding a double-digit lead in the second half before SDSU scored at the buzzer to take a one-point victory.


When conference play began, the Tritons were dominant, starting 9–1, fueled by the addition of junior guard Tyler McGhie and Tshimanga’s return from injury — both of whom would become regulars off the Triton bench. An overtime win against UC Irvine with four games left put the Tritons level with the Anteaters at the top of the standings, but losses against California State University, Bakersfield, and UC Davis ended their hopes of being Big West champions.


Going into the offseason, one of the main questions is going to be whether Pope, who leads the team in scoring, returns for a sixth year with the program. Though he is eligible, Pope is unsure about whether he will return next season.


“I haven’t put too much thought into it,” Pope said. “Still figuring it out right now. I’m just kind of living day to day and trying to go as far as I can with this team.”


Pope, a San Diego native, played high school basketball only a few minutes up the I-5 from UCSD at Torrey Pines High School. And to him, playing for a local university and having loved ones at every game means a lot to him.


“It’s definitely a little more special being from San Diego,” he said. “Every time I drive over to the arena, I have a lot of great emotions going through my body, and I have a lot of friends and family come to every game. It’s definitely been a special experience every night I play in LionTree.”


If this was his last game, what a journey it’s been for him. In his time at UCSD, he emerged as a leading player during the maiden years of the Tritons’ time in the Big West. With 1,611 career points, the most of any Triton since the turn of the century and fourth most overall, I think it’s fair to say that Pope is the first UCSD basketball legend of the Division I era.


As this season ends, so too does its four-year NCAA Division I transition. Next season, the Tritons will be able to compete in the conference tournament and possibly earn a berth to March Madness. The Tritons will kick off their next campaign in November with a slate of non-conference opponents.

Leave a Comment
About the Contributor
Sophie Nourbakhsh
Sophie Nourbakhsh, Photographer
I'm a simple woman, Mrs. Fundamental like I play for the Spurs
More to Discover
Donate to The UCSD Guardian
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The UCSD Guardian
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The UCSD Guardian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *