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UC Irvine MBB Ends Season With 84-75 Loss to Utah

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The UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team (24-10, 17-3) fell to the University of Utah Utes (20-14, 9-11) 84-75 in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Mar. 19.

This was UC Irvine’s first game since the season-derailing loss to Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Big West Championship. UC Irvine was invited to play in the NIT against a Utah team that received one of the automatic bids from the Pac-12 conference. Previously, Utah fell to the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, 72-58.

UC Irvine took an early 2-0 lead following a jumper by senior guard Andre Henry. However, Utah responded with a 9-0 run to take a 9-2 lead.

The Anteaters tied the game at 11 following a 9-0 run of their own, capped off by a jumper from fifth-year guard Pierre Crockrell II. The stifling defense from the Utes responded, however, leading to a 5-0 run to take a 16-11 lead, which they held onto for around the next ten minutes.

UCI junior center Bent Leuchten converted an and-one layup to retake the Anteaters’ lead, 28-27, in the final six minutes of the first half after a masterclass dime from Crockrell II.

A layup by fifth-year forward Dean Keeler put the Anteaters ahead 31-29, but another 5-0 spurt from the Utes gave them the lead, capped off by a three-pointer from senior guard Hunter Erickson.

The Utes once again got the better of the Anteaters, closing the first half on a 9-0 run. Back-to-back-to-back three-pointers from Erickson and senior guard Gabe Madsen put Utah ahead 46-40 going into the halftime break.

Utah started the second half just like they ended the first, exploding out of the gates with an 8-0 run, ballooning their lead to 54-44. 

Utah expanded their lead to 17 with 10 minutes left in the game; however, the Anteaters fought back. An 8-2 run cut the deficit to 11 with nine minutes left. Fifth-year center Branden Carlson was a force in the paint for Utah, finishing with a game-high 21 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. His interior defense stopped the Anteaters from getting any real momentum.

Yet, the Anteaters fought back again, closing the gap to four after a 9-0 run with two minutes left in the game. The run was propelled by the Anteaters’ full-court pressure, which forced Utah into multiple turnovers and easy points for the ‘Eaters. However, that was the closest UCI got, as the Utes knocked down their free throws at the end, pulling away for the 84-75 victory.

Freshman guard Derin Saran had a strong performance for the Anteaters, with 16 points, five rebounds and two steals.

The Anteaters struggled to defend the Utes, who saw double-doubles from Carlson and senior guard Deivon Smith, who finished with 13 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and two blocks.

With the win, Utah advances to the second round of the NIT, where they will face the University of Iowa in Salt Lake City.

UC Irvine finishes their season with an undefeated record at the William Jones Cup and Ball Dawgs Classic, an undefeated record at home, a 17-3 record in conference play, and a win over a top-25-ranked USC team. The Anteaters have won back-to-back regular-season Big West Conference championships; however, they will look to improve in the postseason for another possible Big West final run, a game they have not seen since 2019.

Jack Fedor is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at jfedor@uci.edu 

Edited by James Huston, Jaheem Conley and Jennifer Cheong