Winter recap: Men’s basketball searches for form before Big West play

Cameron Yong/HIGHLANDER
Cameron Yong/HIGHLANDER

Coming out of a tough patch of games in December where the club lost five of seven games, the UC Riverside men’s basketball team started the new year in competitive fashion, almost doubling the point total of their opponent, Iowa’s Waldorf University, in a 85-43 blowout on Jan. 2. Their next game saw the team recover from a 16-point second half deficit only to come up short in a 76-72 defeat to North Texas.

December was filled with ups and downs for the ball club. Five of seven games were decided by a single digit differential, and a majority of those were within five points. The break saw big performances from the team’s two dominant frontcourt players, Chris Patton and Taylor Johns, who are both number one and two on the team in terms of points and rebounds per game. On Dec. 2, in a game against Loyola Marymount, Johns scored a team-high 22 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked three shots. Patton had a similar game on Dec. 16 at Northern Colorado, pouring in 17 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Unfortunately, both games resulted in losses determined by less than five points.

Nick Gruninger had one of the most memorable moments of the season on Dec. 22, going coast-to-coast and making a layup with only 2.6 seconds left in the game to lift the Highlanders to a one-point victory, 57-56, over the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Riverside went into their first game of 2014 with a record of 5-9. In their first game of the new year, the Highlanders decisively defeated Waldorf University 85-43 on Jan. 2. The Warriors, who participate in the less competitive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, came out of the gates strong, tallying the first five points of the game, but UC Riverside exploded to outscore them 32-15 over the remainder of the half. The team shot over 40 percent from the field for the period to take a 32-20 lead at the half.

The Warriors cut the lead to 10 points with the opening jumper of the second half, 32-22, but that’s as close as they would get for the game as the Highlanders ran away with the contest, making 60.6 percent of their shots for the half, en route to a 85-43 victory.

Four Highlanders scored in double figures, something that had only happened twice earlier in the season. Perhaps more important than the scoring in this game was the defense by UCR. They held Waldorf to 27 percent shooting while amassing 10 steals and seven blocks. Key defensive stoppers included Johns, who led the team with four blocks and three steals, and Austin Quick, who had 13 points, including three three-pointers, to go along with his three steals.

Two days later, UCR suffered a 76-72 loss to North Texas on Jan. 4, despite recovering from a 16-point second-half deficit. The Highlanders opened the game aggressively as they drew 16 fouls on the Mean Green in the first half, which translated into 10 points at the line for Riverside. The Mean Green’s bench, however, proved to be the difference as they shot 10-for-15 from the field, helping North Texas to a 33-27 lead at the half.

North Texas used an early 16-4 run in the second to lead 53-37 with 12:33 to go. Riverside, however, showed resiliency as they came back from the deficit to eventually tie the game at 58-58 with 7:08 on clock. Steven Thorton started the run with a three-pointer while freshman Sam Finley closed it off, scoring the next seven points for UCR. The two teams continued to battle for the win as the lead remained at a single-point differential. Guard Nick Gruninger sank a three-pointer with 23 seconds left in the game to bring UCR to within one point, but Riverside couldn’t come away with the game as they fell 76-72.

Thornton and Finley each scored 18 points for the Highlanders. UCR was outscored 42-17 in bench points for the night.

UC Riverside next faces the Cal State Fullerton Titans in its Big West Conference opener at Fullerton on Thursday, Jan. 9.

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