At this point in the season last year, the UC Riverside men’s basketball program battled for every win, squeezing into the Big West Conference tournament as the eighth and final seed.
After Saturday’s 48-44 victory over Cal Poly Pomona, the team picked to finish last in the standings by conference coaches and media now sits in fifth place, only a half-game back of a third seed.
It wasn’t always pretty. UC Riverside let a 30-22 lead at intermission evaporate. They endured through a two-of-12 shooting performance to begin the second half, but behind the reliable musical chants of the band and support of a raucous student-filled crowd, the Highlanders won their twelfth game out of 14 total at the Student Recreation Center Arena this season.
As the final buzzer rang in the electric atmosphere, students rushed onto the floor to celebrate the victory alongside players, coaches and anyone else in sight.
“It started out of the blue,” senior Austin Quick explained about the student support. “I talked to a couple of ‘em on campus, and they said they were going to bring guys to the game. The TV game (Hawaii on Jan. 17) started it off, and then more of them came.”
“This wasn’t a championship game, or anything like that,” Quick continued. “But to see our peers come out and congratulate us, that’s exciting.”
The crowd kept UCR energized as the Broncos, who won the Big West championship last season, turned an eight-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead with 11:04 remaining. With the score knotted at 41 apiece, clutch free throws from Nick Gruninger and Jaylen Bland sealed the low-scoring battle, 48-44.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” stated Jaylen Bland following his 14-point, seven-rebound and two-block performance. “Everything’s not going to be perfect. You’ve got to take that shot sometimes from the opponent, suck it up and get back in the game … We stuck with it and got through it.”
The excitement continues to build for the Highlanders (7-6). They entered Saturday’s night contest in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Big West standings with Cal Poly (6-7) and Hawaii (6-7). Coupled with Hawaii’s 74-67 loss to Davis, UC Riverside moved itself into position for a top-four seed in the conference with only three games remaining in the regular season.
“They are battling through every opportunity to build a foundation for the next game and the conference tournament. This was absolutely huge because it lays the foundation for the next steps for this program. It is that exciting,” Interim Athletics Director Janet Lucas said. “It’s something that they’re continuing to build on with every effort and every practice. And you can’t ask for more from this group.”
With seven conference wins already, the Highlanders can tally their best finish in Division I school history. In 2008-2009, the program was 8-8 in conference, and in a three-way tie for fourth place.
UC Riverside has one game on the schedule this week with a Saturday night matchup against a hosting Cal State Northridge on Feb. 28.
Former UCR athletics director and USC men’s basketball coach Stan Morrison, who was on hand for the victory, summed up the entire sentiment of the night.
“No one wants to play UCR right now,” he declared.