UC Riverside (10-20) vs. UC Irvine (22-10)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, March 13, 9 p.m. (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Honda Center (17,608) -- Anaheim, California. Television: FSN-PT. Home Record: UCR 8-7, UCI 12-4. Away Record: UCR 2-13, UCI 10-6. Neutral Record: UCR 0-0, UCI 0-0. Conference Record: UCR 5-11, UCI 13-3. Series Record: UC Irvine leads, 32-23.
GAME NOTES: UC Irvine played in the title game of the Big West Conference Tournament last season, but this time around the Anteaters would like to be able to celebrate after the final buzzer.
The quest for their first Big West Conference Tournament title begins tonight as top-seeded Irvine clashes with the eighth-seeded Highlanders of UC Riverside in the quarterfinals at the Honda Center.
The Anteaters, who lost to Pacific by a score of 64-55 in the championship round a year ago, have a record of 23-31 in the event all-time. The squad played very well all season long, posting a 22-10 overall record and registering 15 wins in the last 18 outings. Perhaps the hottest team coming into the tournament, UCI is riding a four-game win streak at the moment.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders barely made the cut for the tournament, edging out UC Davis which finished a game behind in the standings. One of the more recent additions to the league, Riverside has a record of just 3-7 in the tournament and has yet to make it to a title game.
As far as the all-time series is concerned, UCI leads by a count of 32-23, winning three straight meetings dating back to last season. The meetings during the 2013-14 regular season finished with nearly identical scores as the Anteaters posted a 72-52 win on the road in January and then nearly duplicated the outcome at home a month later, 70-52.
The winner of this meeting will be back in action in the semifinals on Friday against an opponent to be determined based on the teams remaining and their seeding.
During conference games this season, the Highlanders produced a solid 70.9 ppg at the offensive end of the floor, but the team also surrendered 76.2 ppg which made it difficult to acquire win on a consistent basis. The biggest issue facing Riverside was a perimeter defense that was almost non-existent, as opponents stepped up and knocked down a staggering 43.0 percent of 3-point shots, compared to a mere 30.1 percent for the Highlanders.
Sam Finley paced the offense with his 15.2 ppg, even though he started only two of 16 games, but he was a major reason why the squad suffered on the outside as he converted just 27.6 percent of his triples. Chris Patton (13.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was smart enough to know that he was much more valuable in the paint, as was Taylor Johns (12.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg), the latter also delivering 42 blocked shots in league action.
Late-breaking news lists both Finley and Patton as questionable for this meeting due to a sprained foot and sprained ankle, respectively.
It has taken more than a decade to return the Anteaters to the top of conference play, but fourth-year head coach Russell Turner made it happen and for that he was named the Big West Conference Coach of the Year. Turner, who has guided the squad to back-to-back 20-win campaigns, puts a lot of faith in Chris McNealy who was named to the All-Big West First Team, the first UCI player to make the cut since Patrick Sanders in 2008. Ranked 18th in school history in career scoring with 1,185 points, McNealy was responsible for 11.4 ppg and 4.5 rpg during the regular season.
Providing plenty of support for McNealy was Luke Nelson, voted Big West Freshman of the Year as well as a member of the All-Big West Second Team after putting up a team-best 11.8 ppg, thanks to 67 3-pointers. Freshman Mamadou Ndiaye may have been edged out by his own teammate for newcomer recognition, but towering 7-6 center carved out a niche for himself by being named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year after setting a school record with 94 blocked shots.
Unfortunately for the Highlanders, Irvine appears to have all the bases covered, from top-notch leadership, to overachieving youngsters to defensive menaces. With all that going for them, expect the Anteaters to make it through to the next round.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UC Irvine 77, UC Riverside 61
03/13 10:33:40 ET