FULLERTON — The UC Irvine starters got by with a little help from their friends on Saturday night, those friends being the Anteater bench.
UCI won its cross-county rivalry game against Cal State Fullerton 63-46 thanks in large part to 32 points from Irvine’s reserves, led by a team-high 12 from steady forward Collin Welp.
“Our whole team was really focused and intent on playing this game well,” UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said. “I feel like we got nine guys on our team that could easily start or easily finish the games, and we may have more than that.”
From the onset, Irvine (14-4, 2-0 in Big West play) ran Fullerton (4-12, 0-2) ragged in transition, cutting to the basket for flying finishes at the rim. The Anteaters dominated the boards and used four first-half steals to get out and run.
But things kicked into another gear when the Irvine bench hit the floor. Guard John Edgar, Jr., took the floor and his first 3-pointer since Dec. 15. Seeing the ball go through the rim seemed to invigorate him; Edgar led all first-half scorers with seven points on 3-for-6 shooting.
Meanwhile, Eyassu Worku rushed the ball up in transition to disorient the Titans, and senior forward Elston Jones provided 10 strong first-half minutes in the paint with four points, three rebounds and two blocked shots as Irvine went on a 13-2 run to take a 32-12 lead at the half.
Later, with 10:31 left to play in the game, Irvine’s reserves had outscored Fullerton’s entire team 26-23. Around this time, the redshirt freshman Welp was pulled from the game and shared a moment with Turner.
“I was just really pleased and impressed with his performance,” Turner said. “He can be a difference-making player for us, as he was tonight.”
It was clear early on that it was not going to be Fullerton’s night on offense. At the first timeout of the game with 15:45 left in the first half, the Titans were still scoreless and had missed their first six attempts from the floor.
The Titans didn’t make a single 3-pointer, going 0 for 11 from behind the arc. The woes extended to the free-throw line, where Fullerton made 61.1 percent of its 19 attempts. And perhaps most telling in this game: Just six bench points.
“Their pace really took us out of our game. They were more physical than we were on both ends of the court,” Cal State Fullerton head coach Dedrique Taylor said. “We were a day late and a dollar short tonight.”
The lone bright spot for Fullerton was guard Austen Awosika and his game-high 17 points.
The Irvine bench, though, thrived, and the Anteaters as a whole did, too, as they got off to a strong start in Big West play this week.
“I thought tonight we were a high-level team,” Turner said. “We also know this is a long-distance race and every team in this league can beat us.”
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