Junior guard Michael Hunter made only one of his first eight field goal attempts, but drilled his most important attempt with 27 seconds remaining in overtime to put the Anteaters up 74-71 en route to a 78-74 thrilling victory over reigning Big West Tournament champions Cal State Fullerton on Saturday at the Bren Events Center.
While Hunter’s three gave the ‘Eaters the momentum for the win, senior 3-point specialist Brett Lauer was the story of the match. Lauer was nearly perfect in the first half as he converted seven of nine fields, six of which were 3-pointers, to lead all players at the half with a whopping 22 points.
“That first one felt real good. All of them felt good; even the ones that didn’t go in felt good,” Lauer said.
Lauer’s efforts and the solid Anteater defense contributed to a 37-27 lead at halftime.
Fullerton 6-8 (0-2), which lost to Cal State Northridge 90-64, looked to avenge their latest embarrassing loss and came out fired up for the second half.
After UC Irvine led 53-42 with 11:48 left in regulation, they crumbled in vintage UCI fashion.
Cal State Fullerton switched to a zone defense that left UCI in a daze. A couple of designed alley-oop plays and a monster dunk by Gerard Anderson cut the lead to one at 61-60 with 4:36. Jacques Streeter stepped up for the Titans with 23 points on nine for 13 shooting, including three 3-pointers. However, Streeter missed a one-and-one free throw opportunity, and Thompson missed a pair of field goal tries before freshman Eric Wise converted a three-point play. Wise finished with 25 points and eight rebounds and kept UCI together in the second half after Lauer was limited to three field goal attempts.
Free throws really hurt the Titans as they converted a poor 47.1 percent (8-17).
However, Josh Akognon made two free throws at 1:17, and Streeter made a driving floater over the outstretched arms of Zack Atkinson to tie the game at 64 with 25 seconds left.
On the ensuing play, a miscued pass from Lauer in the corner to a slashing Kevin Bland was stolen by Streeter, who drove to the basket with six seconds left and missed a layup. Papa Guisse failed to drain two heart-stopping offensive rebound attempts as time expired.
UCI knew it had to step up its game in overtime and it did on field goals from Patrick Rembert and Wise. However, the Titans were relentless as a big three from Aaron Thompson knotted the game up at 71.
Fortunately, Hunter stepped up and drained a clutch three, and Wise knocked down his ninth and 10th free throws on 12 attempts to win the game.
Akognon, who was averaging 23.5 points a game heading into the contest, was limited to 3-11 field goals by the defensive combination of Michael Hunter and Patrick Rembert.
“They worked their asses off tonight,” Lauer said.
Coach Douglass agreed on the team’s effort and used Akognon as an example to express this.
“I don’t know if it was because his shooting was off, but he usually shoots 20 shots a game. Our guys only gave him 11,” Coach Douglass said.
Along with the inspired defensive play, UCI out-rebounded its opponent for the sixth straight game (41-36). A big reason for that is the play of another freshman big man, Adam Folker. Folker had 11 rebounds for the Anteaters, seven of which were offensive boards.
Wise scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and overtime. He has been the consistent presence in the UCI lineup as one of the top two scorers in 10 of 13 games. He says he wants to model his game after Shaquille O’Neil. Although his physique is more like that of Charles Barkley, the 34 on his jersey and his power resemble the “Big Fella.”
“He’s a 6-foot-5-inch guy who will go up against 7-footers. He doesn’t care who he is playing against. He thinks he’s the best player on the planet,” Lauer said.
Wise had to return the compliment. When asked about Lauer’s performance effect on his game he said, “Man, it was great; it opened everything up for me inside.”
With the win, UCI snapped a five-game losing streak to Cal State Fullerton, which included the loss in the Big West Tournament final last year that left UCI one win away from its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. More importantly, it was a tremendous moral win for a squad that only won two games in an extremely tough non-conference schedule.
“We hadn’t caught too many breaks this year so it was nice to get this one. I’m proud of our guys to come out and regroup in overtime,” Douglass said.
As far as their record, teams should look more into the 1-0 on their conference record than the 3-10 in their overall record. Often the only shot to make it to the Big Dance in the Big West is to win the Big West Tournament. Therefore, the record does not even matter.
“I don’t even remember playing non-conference games. [Non-conference] is just practice. These are the games that matter,” said Lauer.
Lauer has the right shot and attitude.