UC Irvine’s John Edgar Jr. dribbles past CSUN’s Darius Brown II during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
UC Irvine’s Evan Leonard pushes past CSUN’s defense and scores two during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
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CSUN’s Lamine Diane tries to score two against UC Irvine but is fouled during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
UC Irvine’s Eyassu Worku maneuver’s past CSUN’s defense and scores during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
CSUN’s Darius Brown II handles the ball against UC Irvine during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
CSUN’s Brendan Harrick passes the ball to Lamine Diane who scores two against UC Irvine during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
UC Irvine’s John Edgar Jr. pushes past CSUN’s defense during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
CSUN’s Lamine Diane drives toward the basket as UC Irvine’s Collin Welp defends during Wednesday’s Big West Conference game at the Bren Events Center. CSUN won 72-70. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
IRVINE — It’s true that UC Irvine entered its Big West Conference men’s basketball game against visiting CSUN on Wednesday having clinched the outright championship and top seed for next week’s conference tournament.
But the Matadors entered as one of the conference’s top teams – tied for second with two others – so the last thing the Anteaters wanted was to go into the conference tournament on a losing note against a quality team they could soon see again.
But that’s what happened as CSUN upset UC Irvine 72-70 before 2,954 at Bren Events Center.
The score was tied 68-68 with 2:18 to play, but the Anteaters’ only points the rest of the way came on a basket by Brad Greene with 55 seconds left. But that only pulled them within 72-70 because by then the Matadors had made four free throws – two each by Terrell Gomez and Elijah Harkless – on one-and-one opportunities for a 72-68 lead.
UCI (21-11 overall, 13-3 Big West) had a shot at the end after CSUN’s Lamine Diane missed the front end of a one-and-one with 30.3 seconds to play. But 3-point attempts by Evan Leonard (with about seven seconds left) and John Edgar Jr. (at the buzzer) did not fall.
The score was tied 35-35 at halftime, which was something for the Anteaters because they trailed 20-4 less than seven minutes into the game.
Although UCI already sealed its No. 1 spot in the conference tournament, the Matadors are battling to get the No. 2 seed.
UCI’s regular season is over, but CSUN has a home game left Saturday against Hawaii.
Harkless led the Matadors (14-17, 9-6) with a game-high 30 points and was thrilled to play such a big role in a huge win.
“I just think it was big for us to come in here and beat them in their place,” he said.
It’s also something the Matadors can take with them into the conference tournament.
“Yeah, I definitely agree,” said Harkless, who also grabbed seven rebounds. “I think just don’t get too high, don’t get too low; that’s with us. They’re another team, just like us. We don’t get afraid of nobody. We came out and beat them and that showed that we have courage.
“They came and put it on us by 30 the first time.”
UCI defeated the Matadors 87-64 on Feb. 22 at CSUN.
Anteaters coach Russ Turner was displeased, to be sure. He gave credit to the Matadors, but …
“We got out-played on our court on Senior Night,” he said. “That’s on us, that’s on me and that’s on all of us. And that’s disappointing. But that’s why you play the games and that’s why the games are interesting.
“We gave in to softness and I thought selfishness tonight and that’s disappointing at this stage for this group who’s been so good throughout their career.”
When the Anteaters bolted to a nine-point lead early in the second half, they had all the momentum. UCI was still ahead by nine at 55-46 with 12:54 to play before the Matadors began their comeback with a 3-pointer by Gomez (12 points) and a put-back by Harkless. A 15-footer by Harkless gave CSUN a 63-61 lead with 5:42 left.
Harkless was 12 for 19 from the field.
Greene led UCI with 14 points and 11 rebounds, Evan Leonard and Collin Welp scored 13 apiece and Tommy Rutherford had 12 points.
Welp didn’t like the way his team came began.
“We came out slow and we didn’t come out doing what Coach Turner coached us to do,” he said. “And it showed, I thought.”
Leonard said when his team took a nine-point lead in the second half, it might have been guilty of taking its foot off the gas.
“Yeah, we definitely let up, I feel like, as a team,” he said.
He also noted his team struggled to defend Harkless.
Turner had an interesting thought when he was asked if his team was not ready to play.
“I think we were probably too ready, if there is such a thing,” he said. “We were maybe over-stimulated or something, I don’t know. It’s not easy to come and perform on Senior Night.
“I think we had such an easy performance against (CSUN) the first time we played them, that maybe there was an expectation that tonight would be a celebration and not a competition. And credit to Northridge, they were good.
“But the formula when we’ve looked really poor is that we settle for jump shots early in possessions that put our transition defense in peril and that’s exactly what we did tonight early in the game and then again when we allowed them to make a big run on us in the second half after we had built a lead doing what we prepared to do.”
Diane contributed 18 points and eight rebounds for CSUN.
Eyassu Worku was held to eight points on 3-for-15 shooting, including a 2-for-8 mark from 3-point range. UCI missed five of its last six shots from the field, four of them from beyond the arc.
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