The UCR men’s basketball team (7-20, 5-11) played their final game of the 2016-17 regular season at home in the SRC Arena on Wednesday, March 1 against the UC Irvine Anteaters (19-11, 11-4). Coming off of a heartbreaking loss in overtime to Cal Poly on Saturday, Feb. 25, 84-77, the Highlanders celebrated Senior Night as they honored forward Secean Johnson and guards Gentry Thomas and Malik Thames before tipoff. While the Highlanders had plenty of defensive grit, the offense just could not stay in rhythm as Irvine got the win 68-56.
The entire first half of Wednesday’s game was a back-and-forth battle, as both teams played solid defense as well as lackluster offense. Both teams shot around 40 percent for the half but UC Riverside found difficulty in knocking down open looks or finishing at the rim while Irvine found senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos inside early and often. The Highlanders were able to keep their defensive intensity at a high level but the offense could not get anything going as the first half ended with Irvine up 33-31.
Right out of the gate, Johnson scored the first points of the second half to instantly tie the game at 33. Unfortunately, that was all the Highlanders could muster as they went scoreless for the next five minutes of the half while the Anteaters ran off a 12-point run. Johnson finished with 17 points, leading UCR in scoring, but Irvine’s Luke Nelson finished with a game-high 21 and Dimakopoulos logged 19.
During the postgame press conference, UCR Head Coach Dennis Cutts described his squad’s final two games, and season, as “disruptive.” Cutts cited a number of injuries and minor suspensions as the reasons why this team has not had much consistency in terms of a starting or even bench rotation. “We were down to only eight scholarship athletes, and most teams were playing against don’t have that problem,” but Cutts asserted there were no excuses for not winning close games this year. “I know reasons sound like excuses but we really have no excuses,” explained Cutts.
While UCR’s lineup may have lacked consistency this season there was no lack of tenacity throughout the roster. Sophomore center Menno Dijkstra has found himself not only playing more minutes but also different roles. Cutts explained that Dijkstra has been asked to jump into different rotations as of late and he’s had to fill the role of scorer, defender and rebounder at a moment’s notice. Wednesday night, Dijkstra was charged with defending the paint and evening out the rebound battle, as he logged four rebounds and four steals in his 27 minutes. In the previous game against Cal Poly, he finished with a career-high 17 points and seven boards. Cutts also mentioned that Thames is “still kinda getting back into the rhythm, and Chance (Murray) has been out,” but he still sees that his team is confronting every opponent confidently despite the inconsistent lineup.
Ultimately, the home finale carried little to no weight in the Big West Conference seeding for the Highlanders, as they had already qualified for the conference tournament even before the University of Hawai’i was found to be eligible for postseason play after infraction charges were brought up.
The Highlanders will now get much-needed rest until their first round matchup in the Big West Tournament with six days from their regular season finale between day one of the tournament, which is the longest break of any conference team.
Although Cutts expressed disappointment in his team’s home finale, he declared his team his ready for the challenge of the tournament as, “Everyone is zero-zero (…) and if these kids get the taste of one (win) that could really light a fire in them.” Fire is exactly what this team will have, as they have a revenge opportunity in the first round against Irvine, who came away with the outright first place regular season title following their victory over UC Davis on Saturday.
UCR and Irvine’s Big West Tournament matchup takes place Thursday, March 9 at 6 p.m in the Long Beach State Pyramid.