The UC Riverside men’s basketball team (3-11, 1-2) took on Big West leader UC Davis (10-8, 2-1) on Thursday, Jan. 12 in front of a packed house of 897 for the Highlanders’ first conference home game of the season. Coming into the game the Highlanders had lost their previous two games by six points each, so the grind-out fashion of Thursday’s game was something the blue and gold were accustomed to. In the previous losses (against CSUN and Long Beach State, respectively) the Highlanders held their opponents to 46 percent shooting or below, but were unable to get enough offensive production to close the games out.
Thursday’s game opened up like a heavyweight prize fight with both teams attacking the rim early and often and playing hard-nosed defense. Through the first ten minutes of the game, both teams were unable to score double-digits as the Aggies led 11-6. However, the Highlander defense stayed aggressive and helped fuel a nine minute 17-4 run to close the half that was sparked by an emphatic two-handed slam by senior-transfer forward Secean Johnson. UCR carried that momentum into the opening of the second half scoring the first nine points of the half to jump to a 16-point lead, aided by their especially tenacious defense that held the Aggies to a 29.2 field goal percentage.
The Aggies were able to make a run of their own within the last minute and a half of the game by capitalizing on Highlander turnovers, of which they had 20, and managing the clock with fouls. However UCR was able to hold on for 61-55 final score.
After the win, UCR Head Coach Dennis Cutts asserted the effort his team showed in the game was exactly what he wanted to see out of his team saying, “We’ve been playing some pretty good basketball these last five games. This was really indicative of how we want to play.” Cutts was especially proud of the way the Highlanders closed out both halves of the game and thought it was proof that this team is growing in the right direction. The 2-11 record the team posted prior to conference did nothing to sway the Highlanders’ confidence, in fact it boosted it. “We played on the road a lot which is always tough in college basketball. But we want to be a way better basketball team in January, February and March.”
Johnson and fellow senior transfer guard Malik Thames echoed Cutts’ sentiments, with Thames saying “Sometimes you’re going to have nights like this where shots aren’t falling and you have to rely on your defense.” Johnson also stressed the importance of the team closing out halves on a good note explaining, “We work on four-minute increments and winning every four minutes. Especially closing out halves.” While Cutts and both players acknowledged that the home crowd energy was a plus, they believe their defensive prowess has been forged through the majority of this team’s pre-conference games being on the road.
Ideally, the Highlanders will be able to take the energy from their win over UC Davis and take it on the road again for a matchup against Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. The game will also be broadcast on ESPN3.