UC Irvine men’s basketball coach Russell Turner made a point to err on the side of caution as senior guard Luke Nelson made his way back from a lingering hamstring injury that kept him out of all but one nonconference game this season.
It would have been easy for Russell to bring his star pupil back early, particularly with the Anteaters getting off to a 6-9 start without Nelson in the lineup. Instead, the seventh-year head coach patiently waited for Nelson’s hamstring to properly heal, and the results have been just what he envisioned.
UC Irvine is 5-0 since Nelson’s return, with convincing victories against Long Beach State, Hawaii and Cal State Fullerton to its credit. At 11-9 overall and 4-0 in the Big West Conference, the Anteaters bring the best record in the conference and a six-game winning streak into their 7 p.m. Wednesday matchup with Cal Poly inside Mott Athletics Center.
“Luke is an outstanding player and a leader on this team,” Russell told the Long Beach Press-Telegram this week, “and even when his shot doesn’t fall, he’s a difference maker for us. It’s nice to have him back out there.”
A 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard from England, Nelson is averaging 15.0 points on 52-percent shooting from the field in less than 22 minutes per game. He’s a three-time all-Big West performer and was considered the preseason favorite to garner Big West Player of the Year honors.
The Mustangs (5-12, 0-3 Big West) saw firsthand how dominant Nelson can be during last year’s first-round game at the Big West Tournament in Anaheim. He scored a career-high 36 points — the highest total from an opposing player in Cal Poly history — on 11-for-15 shooting from the field, including a 6-for-7 effort from behind the 3-point line.
The Anteaters rolled to a 20-point victory, their third of the year against the Mustangs. They’ve also won three straight games in San Luis Obispo and are catching Cal Poly at a time when it’s desperate to get things turned around.
Saturday’s 58-53 loss at rival UC Santa Barbara showed a glimpse of the Mustangs’ potential, but they squandered an 11-point lead in the second half on the way to their eighth consecutive defeat.
Three nights earlier, Cal State Fullerton’s Tre’ Coggins — the Big West scoring leader at 18.6 points per game — erupted for a career-high 34 points against the Mustangs in a performance reminiscent of Nelson’s remarkable Big West Tournament showing.
However, Coggins ran into UC Irvine’s buzzsaw defense his next time out.
With Nelson serving as the primary defender, Coggins was held to a season-low three points and missed all 10 of his shots from the field.
“Luke Nelson took it personally as a senior and is known throughout the conference as being excellent on both sides of the ball,” Turner said following the victory.
Nelson also scored a game-high 20 points, and 7-2, 255-pound senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos added 19 points and five rebounds in the Anteaters’ most efficient offensive performance of the season.
UC Irvine is schedule to play four of its next five games on the road, with a visit from Cal Poly on Jan. 26 serving as the lone home matchup during that stretch.
For Turner, who helped guide the Anteaters to Big West regular season championships in 2014 and 2016, the pieces are coming together just how he hoped.
“I feel like guys draw confidence from me,” Nelson said. “I’m a very confident player and guys know that. And I think guys can kind of draw off me for that and find their own confidence.”