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UC Irvine youth movement of 2020-21 now hitting stride as upperclassmen

The Anteaters knocked off Oregon and are a clear threat in the Big West

Syndication: The Register Guard Chris Pietsch/The Register Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

For the first time since 2019, the UC Irvine Anteaters are getting votes in the AP men’s basketball Top 25 poll. UC Irvine was also named Andy Katz’s Team of the Week on Monday. It’s still early in the season, but this shows how well the 2020-21 UC Irvine freshman class has developed.

That season, the Anteaters had the second youngest team in the nation but still managed to have one of the best defenses in the country and reach their fourth-straight Big West title game. Seven of those players are part of this year’s squad, the same group that just upset No. 21 Oregon 69-56 in Eugene.

The score doesn’t tell the full story. That was the first time UC Irvine has beaten Oregon since 1982. It was one of the worst losses of the Dana Altman era, and also a bit of a revenge game because Oregon knocked UC Irvine out in the Round of 32 during the 2019 NCAA Tournament, which had seen the Anteaters’ first-ever win in the Big Dance.

“I told our guys that the last time we played them was in the NCAA Tournament, and this would be an NCAA Tournament type game for us,” UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said. “I thought our team believed, which is the most important thing.”

Friday’s win was also the Anteaters’ first over a Pac-12 opponent since beating Washington in 2013 and was their first road victory over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 15 Stanford in 2005.

The result was in part because the Ducks have dealt with injuries recently, but it’s also a result of the consistency established by Turner, particularly on the defensive end.

Last year, he said he saw a lot of upside for his team because they were still relatively young. The season didn’t go too smoothly and they finished with a 15-10 record. However, their potential showed through a few stats that were relevant on Friday.

At one point, UC Irvine had a 27-point lead over Oregon. The Ducks went 4-of-21 from beyond the arc. Sure, there are nights when shots just don’t go in, but the Ducks had a five-minute period without scoring. Oregon finished the night shooting 32.7% from the field and 19.0% from distance.

It’s important to point out that the Anteaters had the best 3-point defense in the nation last season. They were also ninth in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 60.3 points per game.

UC Irvine’s DJ Davis set multiple career-highs for himself on Friday, including points (24), field goals (eight), and 3-point field goals (six). He is one of the seven players from the 2020-21 season. As a true freshman, he played in 25 games and averaged 9.1 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.

Dawson Baker, another one of the 2020-21 freshmen, was another double figure scorer against Oregon with 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field. Dawson was the 2021 Big West Freshman of the Year and an All-Big West Honorable Mention last season. He missed some games during the 2021-22 campaign after suffering a hand injury during practice mid-December.

This is the Anteaters’ first season without their leader Collin Whelp – the first player in program history to make the All-Big West First Team three times. He was their leading scorer and a key piece in the program, but it seems the team is adjusting well so far.

The Anteaters will be back on the court on Nov. 15 as they host the Loyola Marymount Lions. The game is set for 7 p.m. PT and will be available on ESPN+.