Ahead 19 points with nine minutes to go in the game, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team appeared to be cruising to another victory. Cal State Long Beach had other plans.
Using a full-court press, Long Beach State came back and narrowed the deficit to three. But unfazed by their defense, the Anteaters showed why they’re the team to beat in the Big West Conference by making the plays when they counted and getting physical, grinding out another road win, 73-67, over the 49ers on Jan. 28 at the Walter Pyramid in front of 2,398.
Unlike most nights where they would depend on their shooting, the Anteaters had to rely on plays in the post to earn this victory. The most crucial one was made by freshman forward Adam Templeton. With 18 seconds left in the game, Templeton sealed the victory with a drive and layup that was called for goaltending.
The win marks eight straight for UCI (12-8, 8-0 Big West) and keeps them undefeated and in first place in the conference. But it wasn’t easy, to say the least.
More than anything, this game was mentally tougher than others for the Anteaters. Long Beach State (9-9, 4-3) would not throw in the towel. Players had to separate junior forward Nic Campbell and 49er junior guard Kejuan Johnson after they both fought for a loose ball. The full-court press caused trouble for UCI, and resulted in some ugly turnovers. On several possessions, sophomore center Darren Fells even brought the ball up the court.
‘The turnovers allowed them to come back,’ said UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass. ‘We got the lead and we knew they were going to press. We haven’t been in the situation where we’ve gotten pressed a lot. We’ll work on that.’
For UCI to pull this game out, Douglass was impressed.
‘Long Beach is athletic, a very talented group. They’re a very physical team. It’s a big win for us,’ Douglass said. ‘The crowd was into it, and we could have wilted. But we hung tough.’
Fells added, ‘Coming in, we knew they were athletic, so we just needed to fight back and be more physical than them to win this game.’
He also credited their preparation for helping the team earn the victory.
‘That’s how we do it in practice, we always come out physical in practice,’ Fells said.
Fells led four UCI players in double figures, scoring a team-high 19 points to go along with 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Senior guard Ross Schraeder scored 16, Templeton had 10 and senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald scored 13 points. With the shot clock winding down, Fitzgerald’s reverse layup with 4:15 remaining halted a 14-5 run by Long Beach State. But Fells was the star of this game.
‘I thought Fells had an outstanding game. He played huge,’ Douglass said. ‘[Senior guard] Shamar Armstrong and Adam Templeton both gave us a boost off the bench.’
The Anteaters started off slow, shooting only 35 percent in the first half. They were able to lead going into halftime with a defense that stifled the 49ers. UCI’s largest lead of the night came with 9:03 left in the game at 50-31 after an 18-3 run. Long Beach State’s senior guard Jibril Hodges led the 49er comeback, scoring a game-high 24 points.
Irvine players talked about how they got through the rough stretch in the second half by supporting each other.
‘We came together and talked about it on the court. We make sure to let each other know that it’s all right,’ Armstrong said. ‘If someone is hitting his shots, another person will talk to him and they’ll pick us up.’
The team seems unfazed by the pressure of playing on the road. The win marks their fifth straight road win.
‘Playing at home is great, but it’s even better on the road because you’re the underdog,’ Armstrong said. ‘Coming into a hostile area, you have to knock them off.’
Fells added, ‘The best feeling the in the world is when the crowd is against you and you do everything you can to make them quiet. I love that feeling.’
UCI will look to maintain their perfect conference record this week by going on the road to take on Pacific and Cal State Northridge. With only six conference games left, the team knows they can’t let up.
‘We’re going after each game,’ Douglass said. ‘We’re not afraid.’ to play.’
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