Leading the weekend two-game series against UC San Diego (UCSD), UCR men’s basketball team (10-6, 5-3) entered their second weekend contest in La Jolla, California with impressive momentum. Despite maintaining a lead throughout most of the game, the Highlanders shockingly fell in overtime, concluding the score at 82-83 on Saturday, Feb. 20.
The first half played similarly to the first game of the weekend, since UCSD (5-8, 0-0) opened with a 3-pointer, staying ahead early. Sophomore point guard Zyon Pullin did not allow that for long, leading the way for the Highlanders with 19 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds.
The Highlanders tied it up on three occasions before allowing the point deficit to balloon by 8 for the first time in the series, bringing the score to 10-18 with 10:46 to go. UCR capitalized on costly turnovers committed by UCSD and a layup from redshirt senior forward Arinze Chidom finally brought the Highlanders ahead 24-23.
Despite a Game 2 defensive scheme change, the UCSD Tritons lost their early momentum and couldn’t reestablish themselves quickly enough as UCR kept on the pressure by shooting 55.56% from the field and 44.44% from the 3-point range. By the end of the first half, almost every UCR player scored a basket, bringing the Highlanders to a 35-30 lead.
Returning from halftime, the Highlanders didn’t let up as center Jock Perry laid up the first two points in an exciting team 16-9 run. Redshirt freshman and power forward Oliver Hayes-Brown and Pullin were in regular form. Big team offensive plays and stout defense combined to give UCR it’s largest lead of the game, 51-39 at the 12:59 mark.
Unfortunately, key late game mistakes on offense and defense hurt UCR and provided UCSD with an opportunity to remain in the game. When asked what UCR could have done differently in the second half, Head Coach Mike Magpayo replied, “I wish we made our free throws and didn’t give up so many 3’s. We had a tough time guarding their shooters. I need to do a better job with the scheme against that team.”
Up by 6 points, at 60-54, with 6:11 on the clock, the Highlanders received a gift when Triton’s leading scorer with 16 points, junior forward Toni Rocak, fouled out and was forced to the bench for the remainder of the game. However, despite the efforts of Pullin, Chidom and company on offense, UCR couldn’t find an answer to stop UCSD’s 3-point shooters, senior guard Gabe Hadley and senior forward Hugh Baxter.
With 12 seconds left in normal regulation, Hadley knocked down a magical deep 3-pointer to bring UCSD within 1 point of tying the game with UCR at 69-68. Seconds later, Pullin got fouled by redshirt senior guard Mikey Howell, then proceeded to make both free throws and extended UCR’s lead to 71-68. Immediately afterwards, in a miraculous effort, Hadley tied it up by scoring another deep 3-point shot with only 2.8 seconds left to go. Senior guard George Willborn III then launched a deep ball behind the half-court line in a Hail Mary-style attempt to overcome the Tritons but missed, resulting in overtime.
In overtime, the game remained close. The two teams battled and tied four separate times. Junior point guard Flynn Cameron scored a point in the paint layup that gave UCR its first lead at 78-77 with 1:50 to go. Soon thereafter, Hadley was fouled and made two free throws. Following that, Baxter was fouled, repeating his teammate’s success.
UCR quickly tied it to 80-80 then gained the lead off of another clutch jump shot from Pullin, bringing the score to 82-80 with 21 seconds left. Perhaps borrowing from the NFL quarterback’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s playbook of crazy game-winning throws, Hadley lobbed up another deep 3-pointer with only 7 seconds left on the clock. In a heroic final attempt, the unfazed Pullin made his way to the basket to score a layup but unfortunately came up short.
In a statement about the offensive and defensive game play, Magpayo said, “We wanted to get the ball inside and drive the paint on offense. On defense it was no 3s for Hadley. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop him.”
The top two scorers for UCR, Pullin and Chidom, finished the game with a total of 19 points each. Pullin led the team with 6 assists. Flynn Cameron led the team with 8 rebounds.
Magpayo’s concluding words in anticipation of the next game are, “We just haven’t gotten settled defensively in the last 3 games. We have to get back to our core of who we are, which is a great defensive team. I know our guys will put the work in and we will find a way to get better.”
The Highlanders, now 10-6 overall, 5-3 in conference, will face Big West opponent, UC Santa Barbara next weekend at home on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.