UC Riverside men’s basketball team (7-15, 5-6) fought diligently, but couldn’t close the deal against Long Beach State (11-15, 5-3) on Thursday, Feb. 9. The team led 42-41 at halftime but could not overcome a 37-29 second half by Long Beach State.

The Highlanders shot particularly well in the first half, knocking down 51.7 percent of their shots, but could not continue that trend in the second half with only 38.2 percent field goal shooting. When asked whether second half adjustments by Long Beach made a difference, Head Coach Dennis Cutts stated that it was a lack of defensive energy that ultimately damaged the team. Cutts explained, “When we’re doing some good things defensively, we’re really engaged offensively. When that end slips, it hurts us. They’re tied together, and I thought in the second half last night we just got off a little bit defensively.”

As defense is such a vital part of Riverside’s success, their offense suffers when they play from behind, often becoming overly reliant on individual playmakers to drive their offense. Ideally, the team’s staunch defense sets up the offense to play through their motions, a theme that was present during the first half of the game. Freshman guard Dikymbe Martin and forward Secean Johnson suffered from the lack of offensive fluidity as they managed just a total of 4-15 field goal shooting in the second half. The Highlanders ended the game with five players over double-figures as Dikymbe Martin led the way with 16 points.

The team faced a daunting task going into their matchup against conference-leading UC Davis. They capped off their first matchup against the Aggies with a hard-fought win and they looked to replicate the same formula in their bout. Cutts detailed that they will “tweak a few things, but the formula worked.”

Executing the gameplan was easier said than done as they lost 77-63 against UC Davis (16-9, 8-2) on Saturday, Feb. 11. It had been a closely contested game until a 12-5 point run put UC Davis up 34-20 at half. The Highlanders could not manage to get significantly close as the Aggies built the lead to as much as 22 points. Forward Brandon Rosser led the team with 15 points while forward Secean Johnson double-doubled with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Despite the loss, the confidence Cutts has in his team did not waver. “When we’re at our best, and doing what we should be doing, we can compete with anybody,” Cutts states. The conference tournament offers a clean-slate for them, and it is imperative that they gather positive momentum heading into the three-game tournament.

Injury and lineup instability has plagued the Highlanders throughout the season, but they hope to establish a team identity heading into the conference tournament. Cutts explained, “I think you just want to play to an identity every night, and that’s the biggest thing. Our identity is defined for them, they know what it is, they know what it feels like, what it looks like, and just making sure we’re in that mindset every game.” The team does exceptionally well when they hold the opposing team to less than 60 points, holding a sterling 6-0 record in those matchups. As they look toward the tournament in Anaheim, the team must limit the offensive opportunities of their opponents to prevent the possibility of shootouts.

The Highlanders return to Riverside for a contest against Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. The team then travels to UC Irvine for their first matchup against the Anteaters on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m.