The UCI Men’s Basketball team (23-12,15-5) suffered a loss, 84-58, to the University of Oregon Ducks (20-14,12-8) in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Oregon on March 15.
At the onset of the match, the ‘Eaters got off to a slow start, giving up back-to-back three-pointers from Oregon senior guard Rivaldo Soares and junior guard Keeshawn Barthelemy. An and-one bucket from UCI sophomore center Bent Leuchten cut the early four-point deficit to two. However, another Barthelemy three extended the lead to 12-9 at the first media timeout.
The defensive battle continued for the next three minutes, with the only points coming from Oregon freshman center Kel’el Ware. Yet, the momentum soon shifted with UCI buckets from junior guard Andre Henry and junior forward Chazz Hutchison, cutting the Oregon lead to 16-13 and forcing a timeout.
Still, Oregon responded well to the pressure with a 10-0 run of their own, led by five points from Soares and a putback from redshirt junior forward Lök Wor. The Anteaters found themselves down 12 points with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
Five more points from Soares and a shooting slump from the Anteaters gave Oregon a 31-18 lead with four minutes left in the half. The ‘Eaters shot a horrendous 9-45 (20%) from the field and 1-11 (8.3%) from beyond the arc in the first half, giving them a huge 35-22 deficit to begin the second half.
Junior guard Dawson Baker led all scorers for Irvine with nine in the first half, while Soares put in 13 for the Ducks.
The Anteater’s leading scorer on the season, junior guard DJ Davis, got his first bucket a couple minutes into the second half, drilling a three-pointer. However, another bucket from Soares kept the Oregon lead at 13, 40-27.
A Davis three cut the lead to nine after a huge putback dunk from Soares sent the Oregon crowd into a frenzy. A quick 5-0 Oregon run on a three-pointer from Ware and a bucket from junior guard Tyrone Williams forced a UCI timeout at 53-39. The deficit increased to 15 for the Anteaters following a quick bucket and free throw from Williams, giving the Ducks a 56-41 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
The Ducks started to run away with the lead as the game wore on as Soares continued to be an unstoppable scoring threat. Offensive rebounds and turnovers killed the Anteaters, giving them a 19 point deficit with six minutes remaining at 64-45.
A huge dunk by Oregon sophomore center Nate Bittle lit up the Oregon student section, giving the Ducks their largest lead of the game, 66-47. A three-pointer from Bittle put the exclamation point on the advantage at 69-47.
However, a three-pointer from Davis briefly silenced the crowd.
Bittle hit another three with four minutes left to give Oregon a 72-50 advantage. From there the Ducks never looked back, running away with the game and claiming an 84-58 victory.
The Anteaters were led by Baker with 16 points while Soares had 21 for the Ducks who took the victory.
After the game, UCI head coach Russell Turner shared his thoughts following the team’s first round postseason exit.
“I’m really proud of our whole operation, players, coaches, support staff,” Turner said. “You really have to be thoughtful about how difficult it is to win a championship. And, we did that with this team, surpassed the expectations that everybody had from us to begin the year, so I’m proud of that.”
Turner reflected on the adversity his team has gone through this season, and how proud he is of the team for all they accomplished.
“The group of guys that we have, the commitment they showed, the togetherness, the toughness, to win a 20 game conference championship that takes grit, adversity responses and consistency, all difficult things for young guys to buy into — I feel great about that. We’ll be able to look back at the real appreciation and gratitude for all that went into it, and we know all that, [hence] it’s hard to feel that disappointment we [usually] feel at the end,” Turner added.
Though the loss ended the season for the Anteaters, the team surpassed their goals for the year with their 2023 Big West Conference regular season championship.
James Huston is a Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.