Coming off of a record-breaking 22-win season, the Highlanders were looking to build off last season’s success with a home win against UC Merced. Debuting their new Nike jerseys, it was expected that UCR would pull away from an overmatched UC Merced Bobcats while sporting their flashy new uniforms. Despite playing at the NAIA level, UC Merced was determined to spoil the fashion show.
The Bobcats offense revolved around senior guard Chris Bramah. Unfazed by Division 1 competition, Bramah completed a four-point play to give UC Merced an early lead. UCR head coach Mike Magpayo called an early timeout to get the Highlanders back on track. After the timeout, the Highlanders looked ready to match the intensity of the Bobcats. A block and a steal in back-to-back possessions from senior forward Wil Tattersall and a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Nate Pickens helped bring UCR back into the game. Matched up with Bramah, Pickens looked to disrupt the UC Merced star with aggressive on-ball defense. It led to some fouls, but Pickens was able to force an ugly 10-second violation against the Bobcats.
On offense, Merced couldn’t find an answer for redshirt junior center Jhaylon Martinez in the first half. Working in the post, Martinez played bully ball with the Bobcats. Martinez’s physicality drew fouls and defenders onto him. He was able to kick it out to open shooters and even secured a three-point play. With the UCR offense on a roll, the Bobcats relied on their star backcourt of Bramah and junior guard Aiden Sevilla for scoring. A couple of 3-point plays from the duo made it seem like UC Merced would go into half-time with the momentum. However, redshirt freshman guard Barrington Hargress sunk a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, which got the crowd on its feet. The Highlanders headed to the locker room with a 41-32 lead.
The second half started almost the same way the first half ended. This time around, it was redshirt sophomore guard Isaiah Moses who knocked down the long triple. The Bobcats refused to give up as Sevilla and Bramah responded with 3-pointers of their own. UC Merced had rallied back, and UCR was on the back foot. The lead was cut to just three, but that was as close as it would get. After a timeout, Mike Magpayo and the Highlanders made the right adjustments. Showing off his athleticism, Pickens got up to block the much taller junior forward Myles Haynes of the Bobcats. On the other side of the ball, 3-pointers from junior forward Luke Turner and redshirt freshman forward Kaleb Smith put UCR back in control.
Desperate for a comeback, UC Merced resorted to their half-court trap defense, but steady playmaking from the UCR guards helped get easy buckets. The Highlanders started the new season on the right foot as they cruised to a 76-69 victory. The Bobcats proved to be a good test, as Bramah and Sevilla combined for 44 points. Even though the Highlanders failed to pull away from UC Merced, there are many encouraging signs Mike Magpayo and UCR fans can look to.
Despite shooting only 34.8% from the field and 29.4% behind the arc, the Highlanders used their advantage on the glass to win this one. UCR grabbed 23 offensive rebounds to make up for their poor shooting.
Even after losing key players like Zyon Pullin, Flynn Cameron and Lachlan Olbrich, they learned that the identity of this year’s Highlanders squad is the same. UCR is going to live and die by the three, and the shooting performance should improve throughout the season. UCR is set to travel to Utah (11/10), the University of North Carolina (11/17), UCLA (11/30) and Washington St. (12/6). Four games against Power 5 schools will show if this year’s UCR team can make another run at the Big West Championship.