UC Riverside came into Saturday just 6-13 on the season and winless in the Big West. They appeared to be much better than that record would indicate as the Highlanders made all the big plays in the second half, holding off Hawaii for the 75-71 victory in Riverside, Calif.
In a tight game throughout, Riverside managed to stifle the Rainbow Warriors with their zone defense. Had it not been for Jack Purchase consistently knocking down the mid-range jumper, it would have gotten away from Hawaii much sooner.
Riverside was sparked by its inside-outside game that featured center Callum McRae drawing defensive pressure and opening up three-point shots for his teammates. The Highlanders shot it well, going 13 for 25 from distance on the night.
Hawaii didn’t do anything particularly poorly that it can point to as the reason it lost this one. They were mostly patient offensively and tried to find the soft spots in that Riverside zone. But on a number of key possessions late in the contest, they were scoring two on the offensive end and giving up three on the defensive end, which created enough of a cushion allowing the Highlanders to notch their first conference victory of the season.
Hawaii’s guards had a lot of trouble finding open looks against the zone. Eddie Stansberry came in averaging over 19 points per game over Hawaii’s previous five contests, but he was completely shut down on Saturday, finishing the tough night with just two points on 1 for 7 shooting.
Purchase was the only consistent factor offensively. He was able to use his length and touch around the free-throw line to shoot over the Riverside bigs. He led the way with 24 points on 10 for 15 shooting, including four three-pointers.
Assist numbers don’t always tell the story, but they do give a good indication as to how this game played out because both teams did an exceptional job moving the ball and avoiding isolations. Hawaii assisted on 25 of its 29 made field goals. Riverside notched one more with 26 assists on its 29 made shots.
Hawaii (11-6, 2-1 Big West) had a good opportunity to pick up a road win and remain at the top of the conference standings. The ‘Bows looked focused early on and held an 11-point lead in the first half, only to see that disappear when the Highlanders used a 21-8 run to end the opening period with a 36-34 lead. They never regained the advantage in the second half, mostly thanks to Dragan Elkaz’s knockdown shooting.
Elkaz continuously halted any Hawaii momentum that began to emerge. He ended the night with 25 points to lead all scorers and nailed seven three-pointers.
The loss ends Hawaii’s five-game win streak, which it had extended with Thursday’s victory at CSUN. But the ‘Bows now get to come home for a three-game set, beginning Wednesday night against UC Irvine.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.