It is no stretch to say that the UC Riverside men’s basketball team needed this win against Long Beach State this past Saturday. Thankfully, they got it and it may have done more than just gotten them back to .500, but it may have also saved the year.
Coming into the game, the Highlanders had lost six out of their last seven games, the worst one being a gut-wrenching three-point loss to UC Davis, where the Highlanders failed to score in the last two minutes, coming just two days earlier in the week on Thursday.
But with the game and possibly the season on the line, the Highlanders lived up to their potential and came through. Among the highlights from the game — and there were many — possibly the most important was the re-emergence of, arguably the greatest UC Riverside player of all time, Taylor Johns. Thus far, Johns had yet to break the 20-point marker in a Big West conference game, something he seemingly did with ease all of last year. But in the biggest conference game thus far, Johns delivered in more ways than one. Johns had 26 points, six rebounds and two blocks, but what the box score will not show are Johns’ two electrifying dunks that provided an immense amount of energy to a team that desperately needed it.
After the 49ers of Long Beach State opened up the game on a 10-to-nothing run, partially aided by a seemingly deflated UCR, Highlanders coach Dennis Cutts was forced to call a timeout. This much-needed break allowed the Highlanders to rejuvenate and get back into the game as shortly after they mounted a comeback of their own. The blue and gold soon found themselves within three points, with five minutes left to play, before eventually grinding to a one-point lead at halftime by a score of 38-37.
After halftime, the Highlanders doubled the intensity that they brought on during the first half and, with six minutes left in the game, they had a five-point lead. But like almost every conference game, this game was going to be hard-fought until the end and with two minutes left, the game was tied at 72 after a made free throw by LBSU point guard Justin Bibbins. But with 53 seconds remaining, Taylor Johns made what became the game-winning basket via a sweet jump shot seven feet from the hoop. On the other end it was the Highlanders who broke up what could have been a game-tying jump shot at the buzzer from the 49ers, sealing themselves an impressive conference victory.
Elsewhere on the court, the Highlanders were aided by guard Jaylen Bland who had 16 points, four rebounds and an assist on the night. Long Beach State was led by forward and Loyola Marymount transfer Gabe Levin who had an impressive 20-point effort.
The men are back in action on Thursday as they will travel to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to take on the Mustangs and before rounding out the week with another away game on Saturday against Fullerton where UCR will be looking to avenge their loss that they suffered earlier in conference play.