With nine minutes remaining, UC-Irvine was looking to make a statement against the No. 2 team in the country, Arizona. But in college basketball, nine minutes is an eternity, and especially so when your 7-6 center picks up his fourth foul.
That was when the wheels came off for the Anteaters, a team that pushed a team that no team from the Big West should be able to push. This was a league whose conference tournament champion played in Dayton last year. This is not a league where any member should be able to compete with a team that is expected to be on the top seed line come March.
So it was that it was ultimately disappointing for UC-Irvine, losing to the Wildcats, 71-54, on the road. But this was a night when they put a scare into Arizona, the rest of the Big West and every team remaining on their schedule for the rest of the season.
When you play UC-Irvine, you are really playing two different teams: one with Mamadou Ndiaye on the floor, and one without him.
With the Senegalese center on the floor, the Anteaters intimidate in the 2-3 zone. They force you to drive and kick out, they force you to make shots, because you aren't getting one off straight with him in the center. And on the offensive end, with Ndiaye's improved offensive game from last season, the Anteaters have a weapon that is almost impossible to defend, especially if he makes free throws, like he did against the Wildcats.
Ndiaye came away with just nine points (all in the first half) and a single block at the start of the second, but he had a major effect on Arizona's ability to get inside or use the services of Kaleb Tarczewski, who didn't score until late in the second half.
Look At That!
Without Ndiaye on the floor, the Anteaters are different, less impressive, but still solid. John Ryan did his best Ndiaye impression, fighting for loose balls and filling the interior gap. The offense needs a little more finesse, a little more long range ability, something they get from Travis Souza (11 points, 3-for-5 3PT). They have the floor general in Luke Nelson. They can survive while Ndiaye takes a breather on the bench.
What they can't survive is extended stretches without the man in the middle, and that is what happened when he picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes remaining in what looked like a possible major upset Wednesday night.
Without Ndiaye to contend with, Arizona's confidence picked up and they went on a 15-point run driven as much by offensive execution as the Anteaters inability to just run an offense. It was as if the pressure of holding together without their center for an extended period weighed on the team to where they couldn't deliver.
Even when he came back on the floor, he was neutered at both ends of the floor, unable to contribute much defensively for fear of that fifth foul, and not really the weapon that the Anteaters needed to crawl back from now a 10-point deficit.
The final score doesn't reflect how well this Anteaters team played for 30 minutes, how they pushed this Arizona team to the brink before ultimately running out of steam.
When Drexel pushed Arizona last year, it seemed to be a turning point in the Wildcats' season, spurring for the next two months. Arizona wouldn't lose until February 1, and they were rarely challenged in that streak.
Tonight's game didn't have that same tight final score, but this game may have been more scary for Arizona. This was a game where they didn't play well for 30 minutes, and it ultimately took five good minutes before they could really say that they were in charge. They needed their opponent to lose a major part of its team before they were able to turn things around.
Sean Miller will tell you that this is one of the best teams that will come to Tucson all season long. He will be right by the end of the year, when UCI will be more than just that team with the giant center.
This is a team that will be contending not just for the Big West title, but should be one of those teams that is counted on to pull an upset during the opening weekend of the tournament.
Get Ndiaye on a conditioning program that allows him to play extended minutes on the floor when he isn't in foul trouble, and this becomes a very, very dangerous team. They are scary now, they are Godzilla scary in a couple of months.
We might not ever get a chance to know what would have happened if Ndiaye could have avoided that fourth foul for a few more minutes, if UCI could have kept that five-point lead for a little longer. But what we do know is that they are a lot more than just 7-6 in the middle, and that has a lot of teams worried for when the Anteaters show up in their town.