The UCR men’s basketball team (10-23) ended their season with a 66-43 loss to No. 1 seeded UC Irvine (28-5) in the quarterfinals of the Big West Tournament on Thursday, March 14. The eighth-seeded Highlanders never saw a lead in this game, as the Anteaters hounded the perimeter and frustrated Riverside throughout. UCI is currently ranked fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, holding their opponents to just 37 percent shooting from the field.
Riverside was held to 31 percent shooting, and their 44 points were the fewest points scored against an Anteater team in the Big West Tournament.
UCI’s defensive prowess was especially notable when looking at junior guard Dikymbe Martin’s performance. Martin failed to put up a single point on 0-for-6 shooting. Whether it was lack of aggression, the Irvine game plan, or both, Riverside’s number one scorer looked visibly frustrated throughout the entire 40 minutes of basketball.
“We did what we did and shut down their best player tonight,” UCI head coach Russell Turner said postgame, “Martin had as many points as I had tonight.”
Martin’s game may not have shown up on Thursday, but he did suit up. However, one player that didn’t suit up against Irvine was sophomore Ajani Kennedy, who has been suspended for violating team rules.
Just as they have many times this past season, the Highlanders started the game off solid and were able to keep up with the conference’s top-seeded team in the opening half. Riverside picked up some heat midway through the first by hitting three consecutive three-pointers to spark a 9-0 run and tie the game at 19 points. However, a couple of free throws and threes from Irvine guard Max Hazzard distanced the lead even more, putting the Anteaters up 33-22 at halftime.
The Highlanders found themselves in a rut at the worst time, going scoreless for about seven minutes to start the second half as the Irvine lead extended as far as 25 points. A three-pointer from freshman forward Zac Watson with 7:36 left finally broke the drought, but the game was already out of reach at this point.
Riverside kept fighting in the final minutes, in part due to senior Menno Dijkstra and sophomore guard Jordan Gilliam’s efforts, but they only sliced the lead to as low as 17 points.
In his final game in a Highlander uniform, Dijkstra recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Gilliam led the team with 11 points, adding four rebounds and two assists in the process.
“It was a culture shock when I first came here, but I was welcomed in open hands,” Dijkstra said afterwards, “I loved playing here and it’s great to see how good this program is going to be in the next few years.”
The senior big man referred to the transition from growing up in Standdaarbuiten, Netherlands to playing for UC Riverside for the last four years. Dijkstra averaged 8.1 points per game along with 4.2 rebounds per game on the season.
With the team losing half of their front court to graduation, the Highlanders look to either pair freshman center Callum McRae with another rim protector, or involve McRae more in their offensive schemes.
“His upside is tremendous,” Dijkstra said in praise of McRae, “He’s already one of our best players as a freshman and he’s come a long way for us this year since the first couple games of the season. He’s a great talent and you can’t stop him one-on-one. My words of wisdom for him would be to stay the course, put in the extra weight-lifting and just keep believing.”