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Men's Basketball: UCI alone atop Big West

Dunning's career-high 20 points pace Anteaters to fourth straight win, sole possession of first.

February 15, 2014|By David Carrillo PeƱaloza
  • UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye (34) blocks the shot of UC Riverside's Taylor Johns (5) with help from Mike Best (33) during a Big West Conference game on Saturday.
UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye (34) blocks the shot… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

First place in the Big West Conference was up for grabs by the time the UC Irvine men's basketball team took the court on Saturday.

Coach Russell Turner knew UC Santa Barbara, the team with which the Anteaters went into the day tied for first place, lost a tough one at home to Cal State Northridge in the waning seconds of overtime. He made sure to keep the result from his Anteaters prior to them playing host to UC Riverside.

"I didn't want their minds on anything other than competing … and our game plan," Turner said. "I thought we were in a good place mentally."

The Anteaters have been in an ideal state of mind in February. They are perfect so far in the month and they now find themselves alone atop the Big West.

The Anteaters took care of business against one the worst teams in the conference, defeating the Highlanders, 70-52, in front of 2,986 fans at Bren Events Center.

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The Anteaters (17-9, 8-2 in conference) won their fourth conference game this month. With six Big West games to go, UCI is in position to win its first regular-season conference title in 12 seasons.

The preseason favorite to win conference was UCI. Two of the teams trying to catch the Anteaters are UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii, which are second and tied for third third, respectively, in the standings. In two of next three contests, UCI sees each team.

The key stretch starts Thursday at Hawaii (18-7, 7-4), before UCI wraps up the month at home against UC Santa Barbara (16-7, 7-3) on Feb. 27. Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara are the only teams to hand UCI losses in conference.

"I told the guys, 'We've played 10 games and we're ahead now, but it's still a long, long race with six games remaining. It's a race that requires endurance and toughness,' " Turner said.

Dominique Dunning exhibited the type of toughness Turner expects from his players, in order for the Anteaters to close out the season strong. The guard came off the bench, and scored a career-high 20 points in 13 minutes. He made eight of nine field-goal attempts.

Dunning, as he always seems to do, brought a lot of energy. And with Dunning and his teammates having a bye on Thursday, the Anteaters had an extra step against the Highlanders (8-17, 3-8).

The visitors shot a dismal 28.6% and turned the ball over 17 times. The Anteaters improved to 16-0 when the they hold the opposition to worse than 40% shooting.

"They had the whole week to prepare for us," said Highlanders interim coach Dennis Cutts, whose bench was outscored, 42-19.

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