There was no corner three-pointer at the buzzer, no dramatic come-from-behind victory and there was certainty no love lost between bitter rivals UC Irvine and Long Beach State Friday night in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament.
The Anteaters held tough during the first half against the top-ranked 49ers, trailing by just three points at halftime before Long Beach pulled away for the 77-63 victory, ending UCI’s season.
Playing its third game in as many nights, UCI came out strong and tied the game at 35 on junior guard Chuma Awaji’s two free throws with less than 32 seconds remaining in the half.
With the clock winding down, Long Beach got the game’s biggest basket from little-known reserve guard Artis Gant.
Gant banked in a three-pointer from the top of the arc, putting Long Beach up 38-35 at the break.
‘It was a momentum changer,’ said Long Beach State Head Coach Larry Reynolds, referring to Gant’s shot. ‘They came back, tied the score at 35-35 and we made that three-pointer. Sometimes you’re just lucky. It sent us in at halftime on a high note and left [UCI] shaking its heads.’
Like they have done all season, Long Beach put the game out of reach early in the second half with a 12-2 run.
Long Beach guard Aaron Nixon found forward Sterling Bird for an open dunk and open three-pointer on consecutive possessions, and Nixon hit a three-pointer of his own to give the 49ers a 50-37 lead five minutes into the second half.
‘We knew coming in that their pattern is to pick it up in the second half,’ said UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass. ‘But they have so many weapons that other players pick them up with their penetration game.’
With Long Beach expanding its lead, the game got heated with frustrations boiling over from a rivalry which has only intensified during the past few seasons.
UCI senior forward Mark Kelley and Long Beach’s Mark Dawson were called for double fouls fighting for position on a rebound. Kelley and Dawson started to exchange words face-to-face before teammates separated the two; both players were given technical fouls.
The 49ers would push their lead up to as many as 17 points (61-44) with just over eight minutes remaining in the game.
UCI failed to cut the lead into single digits from that point forward.
‘When [the deficit] was at 12, I wanted to get it to 10 and then I thought we’d have a chance but that never happened,’ Douglass said.
Byrd scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and Nixon added 16 points before fouling out of the game for Long Beach.
This was the second straight year that Long Beach has beaten UCI in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament.
Irvine was led by Awaji who scored 19 points and junior forward Patrick Sanders who was plagued by early foul trouble but was the only other Anteater in double-figures scoring 14 points.
Kelley and senior forward Nic Campbell averaged 15.5 and 14 points per game, respectively, in UCI’s two match-ups this season against Long Beach but struggled throughout the night, combining for just nine points on 4-15 shooting from the field.
Fatigue was certainly a factor for the Anteaters. They shot just over 30 percent from the field in the second half, unable to convert on many shots inside the paint.
‘I thought three days of games wore them down,’ Reynolds said. ‘I think they missed some shots [that] they would have made against us in previous games.’
During the season, UCI (15-18 overall, 6-8 Big West) has given Long Beach all kinds of trouble and was one of just two teams to beat the 49ers in conference games.
‘[UCI] is a good basketball team and are very well-coached and I have to take my hat off to them,’ Reynolds said. ‘They play us very tough. It’s a tough match-up for us. They have some size; we are not a real big team and when their guys are shooting the ball and scoring in and around the basket, they are tough for us to defend.’
UCI advanced to the semifinals after a first round win over UC Riverside (53-52) on Wednesday March 7, and a quarterfinal win over UC Santa Barbara (70-52) on Thursday, March 8.