Usually, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team wears people down. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Anteaters were on the other end of that process, and maybe it says something about this strangest of seasons.
Or maybe it’s just one of those years.
Russell Turner’s 2020-21 team is really young, and it ran into a UC Santa Barbara team with a senior leader who was not only the Big West Conference Player of the Year – and conference tournament MVP – but a young man with a long memory. JaQuori McLaughlin played 39 of 40 minutes and scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half, along with three of his four 3-pointers during a 15-4 run that put the game away, in UCSB’s convincing 79-63 victory at the Mandalay Bay arena.
Gauchos coach Joe Pasternack made sure he put a reminder on his team’s whiteboard of the first two meetings between the teams in late December, 19- and four-point UCI victories at the Bren Events Center.
“We didn’t forget about that the whole year,” McLaughlin said. “And when we got to this game, we were ready. We just do what we did as a team and scouted them as good as we could in one day. And we just did a good job of following the game plan as a team.”
Bottom line: The Gauchos are going to the NCAA Tournament (and in another weird coincidence, so is the school from which McLaughlin transferred, Oregon State). Meanwhile, the Anteaters who will return – which should be almost everyone – will have a memory to keep them fired up in years to come.
“I had this experience as a freshman, as well,” said Brad Greene, UCI’s 6-foot-11 senior center. “I lost in the championship game then, and I know that really fueled me coming into that summer and the seasons after. And so I know each of these young guys coming up will be really ready to play.”
To be precise, Greene had this experience back-to-back years. UCI lost to UC Davis in the final his freshman year and to Cal State Fullerton his sophomore year. He redshirted in 2019, when the Anteaters not only swept through the Big West Tournament but knocked off Kansas State in the first round while going 31-6. And who’s to say last year’s 21-11 team didn’t have a similar run in it before COVID-19 shut the whole thing down.
Results matter this year, as they always do. But it doesn’t hurt to evaluate them in relation to all of the other things that players and coaches have dealt with while trying to play through the worst pandemic in a century: Isolation, testing, restrictions on practice time, when you can gather, how you bond as a team. If you got through the season and played all or most of your scheduled games and didn’t have anyone come down with COVID, isn’t that a victory of sorts?
UCI had a January two-game series with Cal State Northridge and another two-game set with UC Davis canceled and a game against UC San Diego postponed. UCSB lost a series against Long Beach State in early February. The Gauchos were relatively lucky.
Maybe this entire Pandemic Basketball experience will turn out to have had a positive impact on players just from the standpoint of resiliency and a renewed appreciation of the game.
“There have been – I don’t know if consequences is the right word, but this season’s hard,” Turner said. “Our guys have been away from their families. This has been a tough grind. And the buy-in that our young group has had has been outstanding. And Brad, as a leader of this team, as the captain, gets most of the credit for holding the locker room together, but also our staff. … I don’t know how to measure this. It’s hard and there’s an impact. There’s a psychological, there’s an emotional impact of everything we’ve experienced.
“So what I hope is that it’s going to make us better. We’re going to have to try to figure that out, continue to adapt and grow, but that’ll be a challenge.”
How does a player in a position of leadership help his teammates through all of this?
“It’s been rough,” Greene said. “There’s not a lot of outlets for the guys. Usually, during the season people have fans. They have their families coming to games. They have friends there with them. They’re able to socialize outside of it. This year, I thought we did a really good job with just staying together on campus, staying together with one another, creating our own energy in games.”
That might be another of those things that are important but go unnoticed. In buildings without fans, the emotion and enthusiasm the bench provides can be critical.
“To battle through the conference with no fans, with just ourselves, achieve a second-place (finish) and then again to make it all the way to the conference championship in the Big West Tournament, I feel like it was just our guys and wanting to compete, wanting to be with one another,” Greene said. “A lot of these guys are really close to me now.
“As a fifth-year (senior), you know, you’ve got to build those connections. And I feel like this group is phenomenal and I’m really looking forward to what they can bring together in the future.”
Might that have been a warning to the rest of the Big West?
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