Men’s basketball left fighting for their Big West Tournament lives after two critical losses

As the season wraps up for the Highlanders (9-21, 3-11), they hope to find a way to get into the Big West tournament, leading last place Cal Poly by just one game. With just three games left, two against potential high seeds, they looked to get back on track in Northridge against the CSUN Matadors (12-17, 6-7), a rematch of a Jan. 9 contest that saw UCR lose by one point on their home court.

In their final meeting of the season, the rematch did not disappoint.

The first half was a tightly contested affair, with neither team building much of a significant lead over the other. It was also the start of a potential breakout game for freshman center Callum McRae, who led the Highlanders in scoring with 12 points. With under five minutes to play, the Highlanders went on an 11-3 run to take a 38-33 lead at halftime.

Yet, as has been the case for most of the season, the lead dissipated.

The Matadors went on an early 9-2 run to retake the lead at 42-40 in the early minutes of the second half. From then on, neither team built a lead bigger than five points until the Matadors took their largest lead of the game at 62-55 with under 6:17 to play. UCR battled back to tie the game at 68-68 via a McRae layup with 1:11 to go.

The Highlanders had two chances to retake the lead but could not convert. Matador sophomore guard Terrell Gomez capped off his big game with a jumper that gave CSUN the lead with three seconds to play.

Freshman guard DJ McDonald’s last chance heave was no good as the Matadors stole yet another game from UCR, 70-68.

McRae finished with career-bests in scoring and rebounding, a double-double of 20 points and game-high 14 boards for the Highlanders. Junior guard Dikymbe Martin led all players with six assists.

For the Matadors, Gomez led all scorers with 24 points. Redshirt freshman forward Lamine Diane finished with 12 rebounds, and freshman guard Darius Brown II finished with five assists.

The Highlanders looked to bounce back against the conference-leading UC Irvine Anteaters (25-5, 13-1) in a rematch from a Jan. 26 contest that saw the Highlanders lose by 18 on the road.

It was also a day of celebration for the seniors, as they prepared to play in their final home game in their UCR careers.

What hoped to be a joyous ending to the evening never materialized, however.

The Anteaters stifling defense smothered the Highlanders offensively by forcing several turnovers and tough shots. They used that energy to build a 21-8 lead over the first eight minutes.

“They’re top 10 in the country defensively, and number one in defending the two-point field goal,” Head coach David Patrick said.

UCR received a spark from freshman guard Dragan Elkaz, as he scored or assisted on nine of their next 11 points to bring them back into the game.

The Highlanders brought the score to 36-27 at halftime.

Right when it seemed they would try to make a run, turnovers began to run rampant.

“We turned it over to set the tone in the second half, eight times in the first 10 minutes, and they converted on their field goals,” Patrick said.

Those turnovers fueled an 18-5 run that pushed the UCI lead to 54-32 and ended any hope of a Highlander comeback.

With 1:18 left in the game, seniors Menno Dijkstra and Ryker Pierce exited their final home game to a standing ovation.

The Anteaters limited the Highlanders to 40 percent shooting and 35 percent from three en route to a 68-47 victory to clinch the number one seed in the Big West Tournament.

For UCR, Elkaz led the team in scoring with 12 points off the bench. Freshman center Callum McRae grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, and sophomore guard Jordan Gilliam led the team with 3 assists.

For UCI, junior guard Evan Leonard finished with a game-high 14 points. Graduate guard Jonathan Galloway finished with a team-high 11 rebounds, and redshirt junior guard Max Hazzard led all players with four assists.

Up next for the Highlanders, they close out the regular season fighting for a berth in the Big West Tournament when they take on the Long Beach State 49ers (13-18, 7-8) and UC Davis Aggies (11-17, 7-7) in two critical road games.

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