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    UC Irvine dispatches UCSB ahead of Big West showdown with UC San Diego
    • February 23, 2024

    IRVINE — UC Irvine beat UC Santa Barbara to the punch on Thursday night.

    The Anteaters shot 60% from the floor in the first half to build a double-digit lead and then held off a second-half push from the Gauchos to win, 81-69, in a Big West Conference basketball game at the Bren Events Center.

    UCSB came into the game ninth in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage (49.5%), but the Anteaters held the visitors to 42.1%.

    Justin Hohn scored 19 points, Derin Saran contributed 16 points off the bench and Andre Henry finished with 15 points for UCI (20-7 overall, 13-2 Big West), which improved to 11-0 at home this season and remains a game ahead of UC San Diego (18-9, 12-3) for first place in conference play.

    The Anteaters will try for a season sweep of UCSD when the teams square off on Saturday afternoon at UCSD.

    “We know we’ve set up a championship-type game for Saturday,” UCI coach Russell Turner said.

    Yohan Traore scored 22 points to lead the Gauchos (14-12, 7-9), who were picked to finish first in the Big West by nine of the 11 conference coaches after finishing second or better in five of the past six seasons.

    “They’re a team that hasn’t performed as well as a lot of people thought, but they are a talented team, they are a prideful team,” Turner said of UCSB. “I thought they played that way tonight.”

    Ajay Mitchell, the reigning Big West Player of the Year, picked up two fouls in the first 90 seconds and went to the bench shortly afterward before playing sparingly the rest of the first half.

    He stayed on the court in the second half, however, scoring 15 of his 17 points.

    UCI beat the Gauchos by 15 points on Feb. 8 in Santa Barbara, outscoring them 27-4 in bench points, 44-24 in the paint and 14-2 in second-chance points.

    In the rematch, the Anteaters owned a 27-14 advantage in bench points, 36-28 in the paint and 10-6 in second-chance points. The biggest margin was in fast-break points, where UCI owned a 19-6 edge.

    “Pleased with the overall performance tonight,” Turner said. “I thought we were really ready. All 12 guys who hit the rectangle, I thought had the right level of competitiveness and intensity and focus. It was good to see. That’s what I expected tonight.”

    UCSB stayed close for the first 12 minutes, even while Mitchell was on and off the floor.

    The Anteaters made their first run with seven straight points that extended their lead to 31-22 with 6:40 remaining in the half.

    Mitchell scored his first basket with 4:20 left to cut the lead to 33-27, but UCI came back with an 11-0 run that included a four-point play by Hohn, pushing the advantage to 44-27 with 1:32 to go.

    Traore helped pick up the scoring slack for Mitchell in the first half by scoring 14 points.

    UCI cooled off in the second half, shooting 36%, but the Anteaters still managed to extend their lead to 22 on two occasions in the first four minutes.

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    A 13-0 run pulled the Gauchos back within single digits at 56-47 with 12:24 left, however.

    Saran followed with four straight points for UCI and UCSB couldn’t get any closer than eight until Mitchell hit a 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining to cut it to 75-69.

    The Anteaters shut the door by making four of six free throws, and Henry capped the scoring with a dunk with three seconds left.

    “When a game gets spread like that in a 22-point range, like it did, it makes some sense that there’s a natural drop in intensity,” Turner said. “We’ve seen that with this team a lot, but we were able to maintain control and assert ourselves when we needed to.”

    ​ Orange County Register