For the third game in a row, it seemed like a lightbulb flipped on for the UC Riverside men’s basketball team (4-11, 2-2), picking up a second consecutive conference victory in a 71-63 victory over the Cal State Fullerton Titans (8-10, 2-3) on Wednesday, Jan. 18. On offense, the Highlanders showed the balance that they had been looking for all season. Junior center Alex Larsson, senior guard Gentrey Thomas and junior guard Chance Murray each scored 14 and senior forward Secean Johnson added nine to go along with three steals on a night where the Highlanders shot 50 percent from the field, a benchmark they have now only reached three times this season.
The ability to move the ball without losing it was the key to success for this game. The Highlanders, whose assist-to-turnover ratio (AST/TO) was a paltry 0.74 coming into the game, totalled 17 assists to only 13 turnovers. This is a significant improvement from averages of 10.6 assists per game and 14.2 turnovers per game entering Wednesday evening. Head Coach Dennis Cutts knows that his team still needs to make progress, but has remained optimistic about his team’s performance
“Well we have a goal per game of 12 or under. Obviously you can’t play perfectly, but the first seven or eight games of the year, we only missed that goal once. So we show (the players) the film, the things we gotta (sic) correct,” Cutts recounted.
The loss of Taylor Johns and Jaylen Bland to graduation has been tough to overcome, but Cutts believes the team is continuing to learn and head in the right direction.
“Obviously, you don’t just want to give away a possession, so I think we are still trying to get comfortable,” Cutts confessed. We’ve had some guys in and out of the lineup, got some new faces. I know it’s January but we are just hitting our stride offensively.”
On the other hand, the Highlander defense clamped down on Fullerton’s ball movement, allowing only 14 assists while forcing 22 Titan miscues.
According to Cutts, this defensive dominance is a result of development carried over from previous games, including the Highlanders’ previous game with UC Davis on Thursday, Jan. 12, in which they held Davis to a season low 55 points.
“Well we’ve been playing better defensively and in the five games coming out of the break, our numbers are really strong defensively and our last two home games, Grand Canyon included shot 30 percent, so we really feel like we’re building on that end of the floor,” Cutts said.
The game remained close for a majority of regulation, as the score was tied at 42 with 15:31 left in the second half off of a pair of free throws by Cal State Fullerton’s Darcy Malone. However, the Highlanders hit their stride, scoring 13 of the next 16 points to take a comfortable lead that they would never relinquish.
Fullerton’s struggles stemmed from the fact that scoring for any Titan not named Tre Coggins was onerous. Coggins — the Big West’s leading scorer at 18.6 points per game — finished with 14 points on 5-10 shooting from the field, but the rest of his team only shot 17-46. While Cutts acknowledged Coggins as a dangerous scoring threat, he knew that he didn’t have to focus all of their defensive preparation and focus on him to win.
“Well he’s the leading scorer in the conference, obviously a high volume shooter, so we have got to do a good job on him,” Cutts acknowledged.
“We pride ourselves on a team defense and every guy has got a job to do so we need to help each other and support each other. They want to make it a transition game, so we have got to make it a half court, five-on-five game and doing a better job on the perimeter is a big key.”
After taking out the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos on Saturday, Jan. 21 behind Chance Murray’s 15 points, the Highlanders have a trip to Honolulu to take on Hawaii on Wednesday, Jan. 25.