Tiger Who?

Highlanders Scrap Their Way Out of the Cellar


This is the season we’ll look back on, the season when the present showed glimmers of the future. The season when UC Riverside basketball players began to carry themselves a little differently. The season they began to believe. On the surface, the Highlanders’ overall record to date — 5-15 — is nothing to shout about.

But delve beneath, to the nether regions, and you start to see what I’m talkin’ about. No quit. Tight D. Tough rebounding. Patience on O. It’s all there. First-year coach Jim Wooldridge — his last head coaching job was in the Big 12 at Kansas State — has his team working and believing.

And on Saturday, on national — er, regional — TV, the Highlanders took that symbolic first step out of the Big West cellar by outplaying Cal Poly SLO for a 62-58 win in front of a season-high 1,012 at the Student Rec Center at UCR.

We know misery loves company, but tell first-to-worst Long Beeatch State — now alone in the cellar — that we had to bone out, split, vamoose. UCR and LBSU had been chummy down at the bottom of the table for the past few weeks, both teams clinging to a single conference victory. But while the Highlanders were giving Cal Poly the business, the 49ers were suffering a home loss in the Walter Pyramid to the UCI Eaters.

First they beat LBSU. Now they’ve beaten Cal Poly. Logically, next in the cross hairs should be UCI, an admitted step up the Big West food chain. But UCR had UCI scared at home last week. In fact, UCR has been more competitive across the board this season, hanging with USC and Texas Tech, playing Big West preseason favorite UCSB tough on the road in their last game, and generally staying in games. UCR’s only blowout losses have come at the hands of Gonzaga and Minnesota.

On Saturday, with Prime Ticket commentators Michael Cage and Paul Sunderland quickly on the bandwagon, UCR calmly hammered out a 12-point halftime lead with the consummate veteran Larry Cunningham leading the way. Ball movement, patience on offense, rebounding at both ends of the court (UCR outrebounded the Stangs 41-27 in total), and a fortunate hot streak from behind the arc — all these factors played a role.

And praise Jah for that hot first half, because UCR came out colder than the kegerator at the Fiji house in the second half, not settling down until the last 10 minutes or so. The Mustangs eventually cut the lead to two, but UCR sacked up and found its footing, ultimately grinding out the victory. It was a team effort, with four players in double figures. Cunningham, Cleavon Barlow, Jalonni Diggs (game-high 16 points), Severin Gates, Aaron Scott, Christian Soto, and others all played with heart, composure, and belief in their skills.

UCR is building confidence at the perfect part of the season, and their next game offers a chance to stay on a roll as they are on the road at Long Beach — after 10 days rest. Big West foes: you’re officially on notice as we look down the road to the conference tourney. A handful of wins at the Anaheim Convention Center, and the Highlanders are dancing.

Somewhere, legendary UCR coach John Masi is smiling. Well, probably not, actually. But even he has to recognize the progress. I don’t think he’ll smile until he sees the backside of Stan Morrison filling the doorframe on his way out. I witnessed first-hand the quality of Masi’s program during the D2 golden era, and in Nate Carter and Vili Morton he had the foundation of dangerous team — dangerous — but it was not meant to be. I now can’t help but look forward, with Stan, to the future with high hopes for Wooldridge.

Mark Pub Wisdom’s words — this is the season it all changed for the D1-era Highlanders. The end of the beginning.


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