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UC Irvine falters after fast start in loss to Fresno State

IRVINE — Days after nearly upsetting No. 24 San Diego State on the road, UC Irvine couldn’t repeat that performance in an 80-66 loss to Fresno State on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.

“Everybody around here wanted to treat that like a win and tell us how great we were,” Coach Russell Turner said of the 72-69 loss in San Diego on Tuesday.

UCI instead followed that game with its largest margin of defeat so far this season – against a Fresno State squad that entered the game on a five-game losing streak. The Anteaters also gave up the most points they have in a game so far.

“We didn’t rebound well,” Turner said. “We didn’t defend well. We didn’t hustle well. We didn’t fight well.”

UCI (6-3) trailed by six at halftime, but could not replicate its strong start to the first half coming out of the halftime locker room. Fresno State (2-5), which shot 53% from the field, built a double-digit lead midway through the second half and held the Anteaters to 36% shooting in the second half.

“They caught fire, and we lost our fire,” said UCI forward Dean Keeler, who had nine points and four rebounds.

Fresno State forward Isaih Moore had a game-high 22 points to go along with nine rebounds. Jordan Campbell added 16 points and six rebounds and Donavan Yap had 15 points.

The Anteaters, entering the game leading the Big West Conference in points per game, made their first six shots of the night for a 13-5 lead. Guard DJ Davis scored the first seven points of the game for UCI, but was relatively quiet the rest of the night to finish with 11.

Andre Henry’s corner 3-pointer after a pump fake gave the Anteaters their first double-digit lead of the night at 27-17 midway through the first half. But Fresno responded with an 18-3 run and tied the score on back-to-back alley-oops before grabbing a 47-41 lead by halftime.

Turner said his team “has shown a tendency to respond to an early good offensive outing with reduced intensity and reduced fight,” pointing to a 64-55 loss at Pepperdine last month.

“That’s been a confusing tendency we’ve shown,” Turner said.

Guard Dawson Baker led UCI with 12 points, and the junior also recorded his 600th career point as an Anteater. Guard Justin Hohn added 10 as the third double-digit scorer. Eleven players saw the court for UCI, which Turner said is a testament to the number of players on the roster who can contribute.

“Tonight we didn’t have very many guys do that,” Turner said. “We’re a balanced team. We’re not relying on one or two guys. We’re relying on a team effort, and that’s been the hallmark of our program.”

UCI allowed Fresno to shoot 63% from the field in the first half on its way to the 53.3% (32 for 60) overall mark, the best performance of any UCI opponent this season. The Bulldogs also outrebounded UCI 33-26.

Keeler, a senior, believes the team is on the right track with a 6-3 nonconference start but can be vulnerable to a “domino effect” when a string of negative plays happen.

“Just a breakdown of defense and a breakdown on offense when things aren’t going our way,” Keeler said. “It continually got worse. We picked it up at times, but overall not a good game on both sides of the floor.”

Turner added that the team’s defense fuels its offense with transition opportunities. But UCI had just six fast-break points on Saturday.

“We didn’t perform at our best competitive level, and didn’t look very good because of it,” Turner said.

UCI – picked to finish fourth in the Big West preseason poll – entered the game having won three of its last four, which included a tournament win at the Las Vegas Holiday Classic. UCI also won at then-No. 21 Oregon on Nov. 11.

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