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UC Irvine survives challenge at UC Riverside to keep Big West title hopes alive

Anteaters are tied with UC Santa Barbara atop league standings with one game remaining

Syndication: The Register Guard
Bent Leuchten notched 15 points in UC Irvine’s 10-point win over UC Riverside Thursday.
Chris Pietsch/The Register Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Because pretty much every game in the Big West is played after many folks go to bed for the evening, a lot of people don’t have an appreciation for just how good the basketball is in the league which covers California and Hawaii.

Starting Thursday night, the race for a regular season title had three teams in a tie for first place (UC Riverside, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara) and a group of teams one game behind that trio.

Playing at the University Credit Union Center in Davis, the Gauchos came away with an 89-86 win to secure their piece of first place going into Saturday’s conference finales.

Down south at the Student Recreation Center of UC Riverside, the question was who’d join them?

For 40 minutes the Anteaters and Highlanders went punch for punch with each other, but UC Irvine went on a late 16-7 run to maintain their share of first place with a 75-65 win on the road.

Bent Leuchten got the Anteaters off to a good start by scoring the game’s first seven points in a span of just over two and a half minutes. The UCI lead reached 9-0 on a DJ Davis layup. UC Riverside got on the scoreboard courtesy of a 3-pointer from Flynn Cameron, who got hot behind the arc and connected on four triples in the first 20 minutes.

UC Riverside grabbed its first lead at 17-16 off a Cameron steal, which he cashed in from beyond the arc at the nine-minute mark. They’d take their final lead at 28-27 with 5:53 to the half on Jhalyon Martinez’ layup. Doing what champions do, the Anteaters closed the half on a 9-2 run and took a 36-30 lead at halftime. Dawson Baker had a three-point play at the buzzer to finish it.

“Those two losses last week (at Hawaii and UCSD) weren’t going to define our season,” Davis said. “We came in with something to prove, that we could close out a big game. There’s a lot of hidden talent in this league that a lot of folks don’t know about, and we’re motivated to be the last one’s standing in Henderson after losing in the first round last year.”

Lachlan Olbrich’s jumper with 16:45 closed the UC Irvine lead to 41-39, but a 9-2 run culminated by a Baker 3-pointer pushed the Anteater lead back to nine points at 50-41 with 13:20 left. A Justin Hohn jumper gave UCI their then largest lead at 52-41. Cameron’s fifth 3-point make of the night made the UCI lead 59-58 with 5:51 left but the Highlanders would get no closer and fall 75-65.

“I was pleased with the effort defensively except for one stretch in which Flynn Cameron went off on us during that first half,” Anteaters coach Russell Turner said. “They really rebounded the ball well offensively. Our guys locked in defensively down the stretch and made plays against a UC Riverside defense that did an excellent job of making it difficult for us to run a clean offense.”

When David Patrick and Mike Magpayo arrived in Riverside, the men’s basketball program could have been seen as an afterthought. It was UCR’s women’s team making it to the Big West tournament title games, winning regular season championships and making it to the NCAA Tournament under John Margaritis.

“It’s hard to climb that hill,” Turner said. “I have a great deal of respect for everything that UC Riverside, and Mike Magpayo have done to get to this point in a few short years. Tonight’s crowd was amazing for them, as it should’ve been. To walk into here tonight, see that and compare it to what it was when David Patrick took over… The change is phenomenal. UCR fans now have a team that can legitimately contend for a Big West tournament title next week.”