Men’s basketball salvages early conference season woes

Gentrey Thomas (No. 0) digs his shoulder into his defender to get closer to the basket.
Gentrey Thomas (No. 0) digs his shoulder into his defender to get closer to the basket.

UCR will be in the conference tournament come March. Though, given that CSU Northridge voluntarily imposed sanctions that will prohibit them from participating, the remaining Big West teams’ fates were never in question. The real question, as it pertains to UCR, was always how high would they be ranked? And would they prove to be truly formidable competitors among their peers?

With eight games remaining, the answer to the former has about a month to reveal itself. And while the latter is allotted the same amount of time before reaching a conclusion, it had seemed early on that the answer would be a resounding no. After all, the Highlanders opened conference season losing three in a row and four of their first five games — two of which were to the conference leaders, Hawaii and UC Irvine, and another coming in the season opener where they lost a 20-point lead to Cal State Fullerton.

And yet, after fluctuating exactly at or just below a .500 record on the season, UCR men’s basketball now finds themselves two games ahead of that mark at 13-11. The sudden change comes by way of the team winning each of its last three games to put together their longest winning streak of the season and now surge into fifth place in the conference, just half a game below UC Davis and Long Beach State, who are tied at third.

To credit this string of success entirely to one individual would be unfair. However, it is of little coincidence that their streak has coincided with the resurgence of forward Taylor Johns. In each of the three wins over Long Beach State, Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton, Johns has posted averages of 23 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 blocks whilst playing with a renewed energy that seemed absent during the opening stretch of conference play.

The two wins this week over CSUF and Cal Poly were crucial for UCR to prove this season was worthwhile and they will need to continue carrying this success into the upcoming week with rematches against CSUN and UC Davis. UCR defeated CSUN earlier in the year by a three-point margin and slipping up with a loss now would be debilitating to any momentum they’ve cultivated thus far.

Just as a loss to CSUN could prove to have negative implications on their season, a win over UC Davis could be a statement that alters their perception in a positive way. The Highlanders fell to the Aggies in the final game before this latest streak, 55-58, when they allowed Darius Graham and Josh Fox to go off for 21 and 20 points respectively, while failing to get much of anything going for themselves offensively. Johns scored a mere 8 points in that one and fouled out after just 15 minutes of floor time. To win this week, the team not only needs Johns to produce and avoid fouling, but for the defense to contain the scoring threat imposed from Fox and Graham.

Considering the way the team has been playing as of late, their likelihood of executing such a gameplan is trending in a positive direction, but in a season that has been marred by inconsistency, we know this is not at all certain.

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