The Highlanders had a lot riding in this game. It was homecoming, senior night and the final game of the regular season for UC Riverside. The Highlanders were hoping to earn their third win in four games in front of a packed house of 2,185 fans. Phil Martin’s 27 points and Kareem Nitoto’s strong offensive performance ultimately propelled the Highlanders to a much-needed victory against UCI in overtime.
A 9-0 run by UCR got things started. The Highlanders maintained their large lead for the majority of the first half. UCR eventually led by double digits as they shot 45.8 percent from the floor to end the first half with a 36-26 lead.
The Highlanders opened up the second half with a lot of energy as a Phil Martin dunk increased the lead to 16 points. The Highlanders were in complete control at that point, but things fell apart soon after as the Anteaters’ resilience cut the UCR lead to single digits. UCI went on an 11-1 run to cut the lead to just six points with 11:43 remaining in the second half.
Riverside countered with five unanswered points of their own to stop the bleeding, but the Anteaters would not quit. UCI cut the lead to just one point with 3:56 remaining. Both teams traded baskets from that point on. UCR led by three with just 11 seconds to go and looked poised to win it. But with less than ten seconds left, Travis Souza dribbled the ball up the court and drilled in a stunning three-pointer to tie the game at 62 points. The game went straight to overtime.
In the extra period, UCR maintained its composure and quickly built a seven-point lead. Just as they did late in the second period, UCI kept attacking and cut the lead to just one point. But it was too little, too late for the Anteaters and the Highlanders made their final free-throws to seal the win. UCR escaped with a 72-69 victory over UCI in overtime.
“I was really proud of our guys,” said Coach Wooldridge after the game. “We sure did find a way to win the ball game. [I’m] exceptionally proud about how they performed in overtime.”
UC Riverside finished the game with 40 free-throw attempts and converted on 28 of them. UCR finished with a dismal 37.7 percent shooting from the floor, but held the Anteaters to just 37.5 percent.
Phil Martin ended the game with 27 points on 8-13 shooting. Nitoto added 13 points and flirted with a double-double as he grabbed nine rebounds. Robert Smith was UCR’s third leading scorer with 11 points.
“It was a great way for us to have our senior night with a win and have our homecoming with a win for our fans and for our families in attendance,” commented Kareem Nitoto after the game. “It was a great win for everybody.”
With this victory, UCR finishes the regular season with three wins out of four games. The Highlanders will travel to the Honda Center in Anaheim this Thursday to take part in the Big West Tournament. UCR will go into the event as the fifth seed and will take on the Cal Poly Mustangs on March 8 in the first round of competition.