Categoria: Jim Alexander

Alexander: Our 2023 Southern California Sports Franchise Rankings

In contemplating this year’s State of SoCal Sports column, our annual ranking of the teams in this continent’s most diverse sports market, there is one overriding conclusion: This place has an awfully deep bench, with not just quantity but quality.

Southern California had two championship celebrations in the 2022 calendar year, the Rams in February and LAFC in November after maybe the best MLS Cup final in league history. So far in the 21st century, SoCal has had 23 champions covering 10 teams in seven leagues.

But these rankings, as we’ve noted since starting the process for The Press-Enterprise in January 2005, are only partly based on competitive success. It’s a mixture of winning, importance in the market, interest and – not insignificantly – the passion of a team’s followers. The fact that most of these teams do seem to be working harder is a testament to fans’ willingness to vote with their wallets and the realization that, in a market this competitive, you’d better be trying to win every year.

The list, with last year’s ranking in parentheses:

1. Dodgers (2): Maybe Andrew Friedman miscalculated. The last two seasons he let shortstops Corey Seager and Trea Turner walk in free agency, and with Gavin Lux’s torn ACL the Dodgers are trying to MacGyver an important position while working through the end of defensive shifts. But this organization has not only the money but the brainpower to find solutions. They just need to do so more often in October.

2. Lakers (3): Yes, this is a legacy ranking of sorts. The Lakers are ordinary these days, a combination of injuries and roster-building issues, and even after a successful trade deadline they’re scrambling just to qualify for the play-in tournament. But their fans are the region’s most loyal and passionate (and occasionally delusional), for whom Laker Exceptionalism is a state of mind.

3. USC football (7): They’re ba-a-a-a-ck. The conference championship loss to Utah, with a CFP spot there for the taking, and the meltdown against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl provided a thud of an ending. But Lincoln Riley’s first season as coach and Caleb Williams’ Heisman Trophy-winning season brought the faithful back to the Coliseum after the Clay Helton era drove them away.

4. LAFC (tied 9): The most successful expansion/start-up franchise in this community’s history finally cleared the last hurdle by winning its first league championship in front of its diverse and passionate supporters group. For an encore, this year they’ll have another crack at the CONCACAF Champions League, after reaching the final of a condensed pandemic version of the tournament in 2020.

5. UCLA men’s basketball (4): The Bruins no longer surprise anyone, after getting to the Final Four in 2021 and running into North Carolina in the Sweet 16 in ’22. This year they have a tough, tournament-hardened team and a candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year in Jaime Jaquez Jr., and this is another example of a once-spoiled fan base believing again.

6. Chargers (6): You can credit Justin Herbert for much of the Chargers’ rise in popularity in this market. But their dynamic young quarterback still has some heavy lifting to do, especially since “Chargering” remains an active verb in the NFL.

7. Clippers (5): This is a smart, forward-thinking, imaginative management group, with a coach in Tyronn Lue who has won an NBA championship and a roster that would seem to be well-positioned to compete for a title. So why does it feel sometimes like the sum is less than its parts?

8. Rams (1): Here’s the question: If you can go all in to win a championship while fully understanding that you’re going to be paying for it big time down the road, do you still do it? I think Les Snead would still maintain it’s worth it.

9. Angels (12): I used to think the Kings’ fan base was the most embattled in SoCal, their loyalty not rewarded with much of a payoff until 2012. I’m convinced Angels fans have assumed that title – and if you aren’t one of them you might not quite understand how painful it was when they found out Arte Moreno wasn’t selling the team.

10. Kings (8): And now a clarification: Kings fans are no less loyal than they’ve ever been. But it’s taken eight years for them to again feel like, yes, there very well might be a chance to do something special in the springtime. (Yet imagine the conflicted feelings when they see franchise legend Jonathan Quick wearing Vegas colors.)

11. USC men’s basketball (13): Maybe the best-kept secret in the region, never mind the nation. The Trojans are good, and they’re fun to watch, but in their first 16 home dates this season they drew more than 5,700 only twice, against UCLA and Arizona, and averaged 3,878 per game through Thursday’s games. Yeah, I know, football school, but still.

12. Angel City FC (not ranked): About the only thing that didn’t go the new team’s way last year was that it narrowly missed the playoffs (finishing eighth in the 12-team NWSL) while fellow expansionist San Diego made it. But ACFC averaged 19,105 fans per game, not only far and away best in the league but a little over 9,000 more than the league’s average. Need any further verification that the NWSL waited way too long to expand to L.A.?

13. Galaxy (tied 9): The one-time flagship franchise of MLS lost its way for a while. Last year’s conference semifinal loss to LAFC was just their second playoff appearance in six years, but things seemed to be looking up. Then team president Chris Klein was suspended by MLS for violating salary rules, and when the team announced he would return as president anyway, the supporters’ groups announced a boycott. Fun times.

14. UCLA football (15): If the Bruins’ head coach didn’t seem so allergic to any sort of attention directed toward his team, it might be more popular. Attendance keeps going down in the Chip Kelly era, and despite a 6-0 start and a 9-4 record, UCLA averaged 41,593 for eight home games – and that’s with 70,865 attending the USC game at the Rose Bowl. (And Friday, the school signed Kelly to an extension through 2027. Maybe they should move home games to the library.)

15. Sparks (14): Another franchise trying to find its way back. The Sparks won a WNBA championship in 2016, but they were a combined 18 games under .500 the last two seasons and missed the playoffs both years. New faces atop the organizational chart, specifically General Manager Karen Bryant and Coach Curt Miller, will help, as will making sure Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike stay in Sparks uniforms.

16. Ducks (11): Maybe bottoming out is what it will take to get the Ducks on track again. This will be their fifth straight non-playoff season, and right now all they’re doing is increasing their chances in the Connor Bedard lottery, in pursuit of the consensus No. 1 pick in this June’s draft. Those days of extended playoff runs and exciting spring evenings in Honda Center? It’s understandable if you don’t remember.

Gone: Giltinis (16): The experiment of selling Major League Rugby in L.A. had a short life. The team named after a cocktail won the league championship in its first season, 2021, but was suspended from the playoffs in 2022 for violations of salary cap rules, and the L.A. and Austin franchises – both owned by Australian entrepreneur Adam Gilchrist – were expelled from the league in October.  As of now, there’s no replacement.

Alexander: Women’s Basketball Coaches Prove UCLA, USC Can Indeed Work Together

Archrivals aren’t expected to cooperate, much less collaborate. But these are different times in college sports, and with the historic move to the Big Ten on the horizon, doesn’t it make perfect sense for coaches from UCLA and USC to join forces?

Women’s basketball coaches Cori Close of the Bruins and Lindsay Gottlieb of the Trojans are doing so, and it’s largely but not solely because of the logistical challenges created by joining what will be college sports’ first coast-to-coast conference.

They’re looking out not only for their schools and for basketball in L.A. but for the welfare of the women’s game, period, in attacking this challenge as allies and sharing concerns and ideas for best practices. And it’s not incidental that they’ve also enlisted the L.A. Sparks, and specifically Coach Curt Miller and General Manager Karen Bryant, as partners in their collaboration.

“I think it has to be bigger than any of our institutional or pro hats,” Close said. “It has to be bigger than all of us. We’ve got to be committed to (work for) something greater than ourselves. And we need each other. We need to be connected. I mean, isn’t that what we’re trying to do with our teams? We’re trying to take the talent of our teams and the opportunities of our individual pieces, and we’re trying to link them together to do something bigger than any of the individual players could do on their own.

“… It’s bigger than just growing it on the court. It’s about our culture and what it does for women and self-esteem, and women in sport, and women being treated as investments and a really, really valuable product and not a charity. I think those are really important shifts that need to take place in our culture.”

The first reactions when the move became public involved concerns over travel in a conference otherwise based in the eastern and central time zones. As it turns out, those burdens could be less than expected for women’s (and men’s) basketball with charter flights and possibly fewer trips, if more air miles.

“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to have in terms of the number of conference games,” Gottlieb said. “But let’s say there’s 16, kind of guessing. Or even 18. You still have half of them at home. So if there are 18 conference games we’d have nine home games. If there’s 16 conference games, we’d have eight home games. And then one road game is going to be UCLA, right?

“So people forget. We’re still going to be an L.A.-based school. You get to play all your home games in L.A. And I’d imagine that they (Big Ten conference officials) will think about … OK, if we’ve got to go play eight other road games or seven other road games, you try and combine that into three trips.

“In the Pac-12 we make four trips where we get on the plane, and the fifth is UCLA.”

And, she pointed out, two of those conference trips are altitude games, at Utah and at Colorado. That particular adjustment won’t exist in the Big Ten, but there will be adjustments involving time zones and departure times, as well as which days conference games will be scheduled.

Close noted that the Bruins played a multi-team event in the Bahamas this past November and went back to the East Coast a week later to play at top-ranked South Carolina.

“And I thought to myself, ‘This really is not that bad, you know?’” Close said.

One antidote would be to stay in the western half of the continent as much as possible in nonconference play, ideally with two-year home-and-home series with some of their current conference opponents. That assumes, of course, that other Pac-12 coaches or administrators won’t still be miffed at the L.A. schools for leaving.

“I get it. They’re allowed to be mad that we left,” Close said. “But the reality is, is it more important to be mad that we left or is it more important to do what’s best for the game, your institution and your budgets?”

But consider: Big Ten teams will have to come out here, too, and what happens when a player compares L.A.’s weather in January or February to that at home?

“Our home-court advantage should be as good as anybody’s in the country,” Gottlieb said. “I think they’re all going to be wanting to make that trip, right? Because L.A. in January and February is probably nicer than the cities that they’re coming from.”

Or what about that player in the East or Midwest who realizes she can go to school in Los Angeles and still get a road game or two closer to home? Both schools should benefit on a national recruiting level.

“We’ve been recruiting to the Pac-12 so hard for so long, (a concern was) how this was affecting recruiting,” Close said. “And honestly, it’s actually been a blessing. … At first, when I didn’t have all my facts, I thought it might close doors. But as I’ve gone along and I’ve gotten more and more factual information, it’s actually opened up a lot more doors with recruits across the country.”

Other parts of the travel equation involve study time, sleep, nutrition and mental and physical health. But as Gottlieb put it, “If you’re not thinking about mental health and the nutrition and sleep of your athletes when you’re going to Tucson, Pullman, Boulder, the Bay Area, then you’re not doing your job already. Mental health is something you have to be considering for student-athletes now, no matter what conference you’re in. So I don’t think this adds anything additional. I think we have to be aware of it as it is.”

Gottlieb, who spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers before taking the USC job last season and thus received full immersion in the craziness (and, to be honest, luxury) of NBA travel, noted that there are ways to make it efficient and comfortable.

“We’re going to have the best of the best resources to figure out what’s best for the student-athletes,” she said. “We’ll talk to sleep experts and academic people and we’ll figure it out. So I think everything’s on the table just to make it as student-athlete-friendly as possible.”

The funny thing is that when Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group broke the story of the schools’ move last June 30, Close – normally well plugged in as a member of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee and president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association – was among the last to know. That tells you how well the athletic directors, UCLA’s Martin Jarmond and USC’s Mike Bone, kept the move under wraps.

“I was on a staycation and I wasn’t checking my social media or anything, but I started getting all these text messages from these East Coast friends,” Close said. “And then I got a text message from Lindsay, and I’m going, ‘This can’t be right.’ I mean, I’ve heard nothing about this.

“And then literally probably about 10 minutes after I got a text message from Lindsay, I got a text message from our two associate A.D.s (Christina Munger-Rivera and Josh Rebholz) saying, ‘Hey, we want to call you in 10 minutes.’”

A couple of hours into the resulting social media firestorm, Gottlieb said, “we texted each other and said, ‘You ready for this?’

“I respect her,” she said of Close. “I respect her commitment to the women’s game, and she’s someone that always sees the big picture, So I knew, and I know going forward, that she’ll be a really good ally in terms of trying to figure out how to make this work as well as possible for both of our programs.”

In women’s basketball, this should be a case of moving from one powerhouse conference to another. Currently, each conference has seven projected NCAA Tournament entries, and the Pac-12 has six teams in the NET top 25, the Big Ten five. (As of Thursday, UCLA was 24th in the NET metric and USC 28th.)

But, as noted above, it’s not just about the conference. There are larger issues.

“We haven’t arrived completely in women’s basketball, right?” Gottlieb said. “There’s been so much growth, but there’s always ways to push the envelope. … I’ve never been one to shy away from change. It can be scary or it can motivate you. And I think Cori and I both look at it as a way to impact the way the game goes for all of women’s basketball.

[“related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]

Close cited a 2019 USC-Purdue study showing that women received just 4% of sports coverage in the United States, along with more recent numbers showing increased attendance and viewership and a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers projecting that women’s sports revenue will grow by at least 15% over the next three to five years.

“So much of our history has been, well, we’ll just bring the women along so we don’t get a Title IX exposure or whatever else, or we don’t want to have bad PR,” Close said. “But now … you’re talking about, ‘Hey, we’re tapped out in terms of our sponsorship for men’s basketball and for football, where’s the next revenue stream?’ My argument is it’s women’s basketball.

“We don’t want to take anything away from anybody. We just want to have women be really great contributors to the financial landscape of college athletics. And I think with Lindsay and I working together with this trailblazing move to the Big Ten, we have a great opportunity to contribute to that.”

What’s the old saying? Together everyone achieves more. (Think about the acronym.)

Then again, when they play each other that’s put on hold.

Alexander: Russell Westbrook Makes An (Almost) Successful Clippers Debut

LOS ANGELES — The length of Russell Westbrook’s honeymoon with the Clippers might hinge on a couple of mitigating factors.

First, he has more good players around him. His new team has two superstars, the same as his old team. But the complementary players, including those the Clippers picked up at the trading deadline, are far more skilled than those the Lakers had around him. (And there is no small irony in the idea that the Lakers assembled a better supporting cast by trading Westbrook).

Second? It’s early, and this could change, but I suspect Clippers fans won’t have breakdowns every time Westbrook takes a chance that doesn’t work, which is bound to happen frequently. That’s just the type of player he is.

Plus, now that his gargantuan contract has been bought out and he’s basically playing for the veteran’s minimum with the Clippers, the “are you getting what you’re paying for” question no longer applies.

The Full Russ was on display Friday night, in the course of an historic and occasionally hysterical game between the Clippers and the Sacramento Kings, a 176-175 double-overtime Kings victory – no, that’s no typo – that was the second highest-scoring game in NBA history. It was basically what an All-Star Game might look like if players actually cared. They tried defending, honestly, but were just overmatched.

And while Westbrook’s stats weren’t eye-popping on such a crazy night, they were impressive given that he’d had just two days of practice with this group. He scored 17 points and, more significantly, had 14 assists, a sign that he’d already developed on-court compatibility with Kawhi Leonard – for instance, zipping a pass from the corner to Leonard for a wide-open 3-pointer out front – while picking up where he’d left off with Paul George from when the two were both in Oklahoma City. Given that Leonard finished the night with 44 points and George with 34, this was a good sign.

“He knew enough” of the offense from two days of practice, Coach Ty Lue said. “Knowing PG’s plays, knowing Kawhi’s plays, that’s the most important thing. So he picked those things up right away. There’s still a lot more that we can still incorporate and learn on the fly. But I thought he did a good job knowing the plays and knowing the play calls, and he did a good job with it.”

“What hurt us was (Sacramento’s) ball pressure, getting up the floor and picking up full court. That’s when we turned the basketball over. So to keep him in the game and on the floor to initiate because the pressure doesn’t bother him, I thought was key for us. And it was big. When he fouled out (with 1:49 left in the second overtime), it really hurt us.”

It is not insignificant that George and Leonard both lobbied for Westbrook, George particularly publicly and emphatically, and if the account provided by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst was accurate the two stars convinced Lawrence Frank to give Westbrook a shot.

Leonard sidestepped the question of how much input he had, but noted: “Once he got here, I just told him, be yourself and have fun out there. And I just believe in him, so (I’m) just trying to give him confidence and letting him know that we’re happy to have him.”

And maybe that’s the bottom line: With the Lakers, too often he was treated as a third wheel, his determination to play his style and his game considered a detriment. The Clippers expect and encourage him to push the pace and take chances, and while it’s to be determined whether that will ultimately be productive, that encouragement in itself might be liberating.

“I’m just trying to find ways to be effective while I’m on the floor and (to do) whatever’s asked of me, screening or whatever, rolling, handling, whatever that may be, cutting,” Westbrook said. “And I just try to do different things to impact the game and (use) my IQ to be able to make plays for others.

“… I see so many things that I’m thinking about now for when I go home and watch the film tonight, just how I can be able to help make the game even more easier for them so they don’t have to work as hard. And, you know, we’ll get there.”

He didn’t make any subtle references to his situation with the Lakers – the past is the past, right – but the contrast was obvious. He received a nice roar from a crowd announced as a 19,068 sellout when he was introduced with the starting lineup, not as loud as Leonard and George but loud enough. And he got a standing ovation as he came off the court at the end after fouling out as recognition for a full night’s work, 39:27 out of 58 possible minutes.

“I mean, it’s a blessing, you know, just the excitement in the building,” he said. “The enthusiasm from the fans and just the support that they have, not just for me but for our overall team, was great. And, you know, hopefully we can be able to keep that going as the season goes along. And I’ll do my part by playing as hard as I can, you know, when given the opportunity.

“… I think that’s something I don’t take for granted, being somewhere where given an opportunity to go play. Not just that, but the support of the organization, my teammates, the fans overall,” he said later, adding: “The support system around us was an all-time high.”

Interpret that as you will. Maybe it was a subtle reference to his former team. Maybe it wasn’t.

And maybe, with a different environment, we will see a better Russell Westbrook.

Those suggestions that the Clippers were crazy to take him on, or that he might be a net negative? Sure, it’s the ultimate small sample size of only one game, but you wonder if maybe their organization knows something we don’t.

17 points
5 rebounds
14 assists

Russ put in work as the Clippers fought a wild 2OT battle with the Kings on his debut 💪

— NBA (@NBA) February 25, 2023

Alexander: For UC Irvine, Another Dominant Night At UC Riverside’s Expense

UC Irvine forward Devin Tillis, left, and UC Riverside forward Lachlan Olbrich struggle to get control of a rebound during the first half of their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Riverside forward Vladimer Salaridze reaches to pull down a rebound during the first half of their Big West Conference game against UC Irvine on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine guard Justin Hohn, right, takes a jump shot over UC Riverside guard Zyon Pullin during the first half of their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Riverside forward Lachlan Olbrich, left, keeps a rebound away from UC Irvine forward Akiva McBirney-Griffin during the first half of their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Riverside guard Zyon Pullin, right, drives around UC Irvine guard Pierre Crockrell II during their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine guard Dawson Baker takes a jump shot during their Big West Conference game against UC Riverside on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine guard Dawson Baker, right, puts up a shot past UC Riverside forward Vladimer Salaridze during the first half of their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine forward Dean Keeler, center, protects the ball from UC Riverside forward Lachlan Olbrich, left, and forward Vladimer Salaridze, right, during their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine guard Pierre Crockrell II, left, scores over UC Riverside forward Luke Turner during their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

Surrounded by UC Irvine players, UC Riverside forward Lachlan Olbrich, center, loses control of the ball during their Big West Conference game on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine forward JC Butler scrambles along the floor to grab a loose ball during their Big West Conference game against UC Riverside on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

UC Irvine forward Dean Keeler gestures after scoring during their Big West Conference game against UC Riverside on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

IRVINE — UC Irvine’s athletic nickname is, of course, the Anteaters. But to UC Riverside’s men’s basketball program, they might as be the white whale, the character in Moby Dick that was endlessly pursued but never caught.

Or maybe the Highlanders’ pursuit of UCI could be considered a Sisyphean task, with a boulder that they just can’t quite get up the mountain.

UCR and UCI came into Saturday night’s game at the Bren Events Center separated by a half-game in the Big West Conference standings. The gulf looked far more imposing after the Anteaters’ 83-64 victory, on a night when UCI shot 56.7% from the field, held UCR to 35.6%, and outscored the Highlanders 38-20 in the paint, 16-1 on fast-breaks and 22-6 in bench scoring.

This wasn’t a season-breaker, mind you. UCI is 10-3 in conference play (17-8 overall) and a game behind first-place UC Santa Barbara, with a chance to avenge an earlier loss to the Gauchos coming up Wednesday night in Santa Barbara. UCR is 9-5 and 16-10 and tied with Long Beach State for fourth place, with a rematch with LBSU coming up Wednesday night in Riverside.

But, with the conference tournament now four weeks away, in a one-bid league, the idea is to be building to a crescendo. UCR, with starting center Kyle Owens likely done for the season because of injury, needs everyone else at peak efficiency and had much less Saturday night, getting 22 points from Australian freshman Lachlan Olbrich and 12 from senior guard Zyon Pullin on 4-for-11 shooting.

For UCI, junior Dawson Baker scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting and fellow junior DJ Davis – from Riverside Poly, and thus one who got away from UCR – added 18 while going 6 for 11 with four 3-pointers. The Anteaters led 38-27 at halftime, broke it open with a 16-5 run early in the second half and led by 28 with 6:44 left.

“That felt like two years ago in the (Big West Tournament) semis (a 78-61 loss in Henderson, Nevada), and just the guys not understanding what it’s going to be like and really the forcefulness that you have to play this game against them,” UCR coach Mike Magpayo said. “That is their identity. So we didn’t meet that challenge.”

And, he added, “I was telling them for the last 48 hours what to expect and sharing with them and bringing the intensity this morning. It started in shootaround. Coach Magpayo was the most intense guy at shootaround. … I think that there needs to be some reflection as a program (to) decide if we’re willing to meet that challenge. If we’re not willing, that’s what it’s going to be like at the Dollar Loan Center.”

For the past five seasons, two under David Patrick and the last three under Magpayo, the Highlanders’ focus has been to build a roster capable of competing with the Anteaters and their trademark physicality and intensity.

UCI coach Russ Turner said he appreciates that sort of respect, but he also noted that the Anteaters have earned it. They’ve compiled a 259-166 overall record in the Turner era, with five regular-season Big West titles, six trips to the conference tournament championship game and two tournament titles since he took over in 2010.

“They’re not the only team in the league who’s trying to figure out how to be like what we’ve been,” Turner said. “You know, when I got the job, I went through the same thing. At that time, Long Beach and Santa Barbara were at the top. And we were trying to figure out what identity for us could be effective here. That’s the million dollar question in trying to build an identity for a college basketball team.”

In Turner’s first season at UCI, after assistant coaching positions at Wake Forest (under Dave Odom) and Stanford (Mike Montgomery) and six seasons as a Golden State Warriors assistant, the Anteaters were 13-19. The next, they were 12-20. In his third season, they were 21-16 and off to the races.

One of the constants at UCI through the Turner era has been defensive intensity, and it’s an interesting phenomenon in college basketball. There’s not a coach in the country who doesn’t preach the importance of defense, but how many actually follow through and make it clear that if you don’t defend, you don’t play?

“Yeah, we preach defense all day in practice,” UCI senior guard Pierre Cockrell said. “Free-throw rebounds is another thing that we’re preaching right now. We gave up a couple of those tonight, which we’ll go back to practice and work on and get better. But yeah, I think we’re a defensive team and when we come out and defend like that at a high level, I think we can win against anybody.”

This was a small sample size, of course. Then again, UCR has lost three of its last four and four out of six without Owens, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Montana who had averaged 10 points, 5.6 rebounds and 24.4 minutes per game overall and 12.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in conference play but was injured on Jan. 19 at UC Davis. The Highlanders were 13-4 with him in the starting lineup, and without him, Olbrich and Jhaylon Martinez have gotten much of the big man minutes.

“We’ve been battling without him, but it makes a difference,” Magpayo said. “He ain’t going to be with us, so it doesn’t matter.”

But if UCI is going to be in the way, here are some sobering numbers for UCR: The Highlanders have now lost six straight to the Anteaters, since a victory in Riverside in February of 2021, and 16 of 17 dating to February 2015, another home victory. In the Turner era, UCI is 19-5 against UCR and hasn’t lost to the Highlanders in the Bren Center since December of 2010.

“I mean, we were really good tonight,” Turner said. “But there’s no way to expect this type of dominance over a team as good as Riverside is. Credit to Coach Magpayo and their staff and administration for where they’ve got that team right now. They’re a good team who had a tough night tonight. … We played really, really well, and I do like the fact that we were good both on offense and defense. But no, there was nothing normal about tonight as far as the way this game went against a quality team like Riverside.”

But from UCR’s vantage point, that white whale isn’t getting any smaller.