This year’s UC Irvine men’s basketball team accomplished a feat that had not been done since the early nineties; it made it to the Big West Tournament final. For the first time since 1994, the Anteaters were one win away from making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Unfortunately, a well-coached and polished Cal State Fullerton team stood in its way.
The Anteaters entered the Big West tournament with fifth seed, thus requiring them to play a tournament-high four games on their road to the Big Dance.
Fullerton, a top seed, played its first game in a semi-final against Cal State Northridge. The Titans easily took care of Northridge, defeating them by a double-digit margin.
The Anteaters defeated Long Beach State in the first round, and then defeated Pacific in the second. In the semifinals, the Anteaters met the top-ranked UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, who automatically qualified into the tournament semifinals because of its high rank. Although UCSB was predicted to win the Big West, UCI was the only team to defeat UCSB twice in the regular season. With the victory, the Anteaters were matched up to play Fullerton in the finals, the only team to defeat the Anteaters at the Bren Events Center this season.
The Anaheim Convention Center was packed with supporters from both sides; the student sections were as lively as ever. Anteaters hoped for their first-ever birth to the Big Dance, and the Titans for the first time since 1978.
The Titans, looking fresh and polished, came out firing, shooting 53.6 percent from the field. They made open baskets and hit their free throws, as the Anteaters struggled to get a consistent offense going. With a tough defense however, the Anteaters kept it close and cut the deficit to 10 with Michael Hunter’s buzzer-beating three-pointer at the half. At 37-27, the Anteaters brought hope to their fans in a second half comeback.
Despite a 21-point and 10-rebound effort from senior Darren Fells, the Anteaters could not cut the lead to inside 10. The Titans led by as much as 18 in the second-half.
Behind strong shooting from Josh Akognon, who finished with 23 points, the Titans diffused any Anteater attack. Behind the 22 points and 12 rebounds from Scott Cutley, the Titans dominated the boards, and controlled the fundamental aspect of the game.
As the buzzer rang, the scoreboard showed: Cal State Fullerton 81, UC Irvine 66.
“Obviously, [the Titans] are a very talented, well-coached team playing exceptional basketball this time of year,” Douglass said. “My seniors gutted it out for four years and they did everything they could tonight. It’s just that [The Titans] are a load. I was proud of our effort and how [my players] represented the university. We would have liked to have come out on top, but we have a lot of respect for the way Fullerton played.”
Senior Patrick Sanders finished with a disappointing 11 points. Sophomore Micheal Hunter finished with 14 points, which included the spectacular three-pointer he scored to close the half, which was featured on ESPN’s Sportscenter.
Though Sanders could not take over the game, he was incredibly valuable to the Anteaters all season, oftentimes taking over late in games and making the big shots. There is no doubt that he deserves Big West first team honors.
As far as Fells is concerned, he was as solid as you can ask for from an undersized center. He averaged just over 16 points and nine rebounds in the four tournament games and was also named to the all-tournament team.
The most exciting part of the late season had to be the emergence of senior Marcus McIntosh. After sitting on the bench for much of his first season, McIntosh earned playing time early on and eventually took a starting role. His athleticism and ability to make shots showed why Texas A&M recruited him, and he definitely showed that he was no fluke late in the season.
The Anteaters also look to be in good hands in at least three positions next year. Hunter is as good as any guard in the conference, and has a good shooting touch. Junior Kevin Bland struggled all season to fill his role on the team, but he came into his own in the Big West tournament. His hustle-and-smart defensive play cannot be taught, but he will need to improve his shot to be a bigger threat next season. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament was the emergence of freshman Patrick Rembert. Rembert won the starting job as point guard after barely seeing any time on the court during the season. When the ball is in his hands, the Anteaters can rely on a calm and careful athlete. We saw the ice in his veins as he drained five of six late free throws against UCSB to secure the victory in the semifinals. Remember, he was a freshman thrown into a pressure situation right away, and he handled it like a veteran.
The void left by the graduations of Sanders and Fells will be the most pressing situation to fill in the off-season. But the Anteaters should improve on their 18-16 record (UCI played arguably its toughest schedule ever and in the conference).
Thank you to this year’s Anteaters for fighting until the end, and bringing back the spirited college basketball atmosphere the school has lacked for so long.
Notable notes from the Anteater’s season: