In front of a crowd of 3,907, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team (9-9, 3-2) defeated Cal State Northridge (9-8, 0-5) 79-69, marking the first time since March 8, 2008 that the Anteaters have held a .500 or better record after playing 18 or more games.
With 0.2 seconds left on the clock before halftime, UCI led 36-35 with a dead ball behind their basket. Freshman point guard Alex Young took the ball as the referee whistled it live. Junior Chris McNealy crashed the paint from the perimeter and then cleared out, opening space for sophomore forward Will Davis II. Young lobbed a pass just in front of the basket, where Davis delicately tapped his fingertips off the ball, which he sent off the glass and in for the score. UCI entered halftime up 38-35 with the huge momentum boost, having perfected a play that they might not have pulled off nine out of 10 times.
“That was one of the options on one of our plays,” Coach Russell Turner said. “All I did was call the play and our freshman point guard knew it right away, and the guy who screened for him, knew it right away. So that was a heck of a momentum deal.
“If the pass had been right to [Davis], he couldn’t have tipped it. Alex threw the pass like three feet in front of him, and that was a big play.”
Senior Daman Starring shot 0-3 in the first half, failing to record a single point, rebound, block, steal or assist in 14 minutes of play. Sensing that Starring had lost his edge, Coach Turner benched his captain for a few minutes.
“I told him I didn’t think his level was good enough,” Turner said. “I’m sure he didn’t like hearing that. The guys I put in behind him did play at a high level and there’s motivation in that.”
In response, Starring came out firing in the second half and was the difference for the Anteaters. He scored 11 of the team’s first 14 points out of the locker room, nailing three 3-pointers in the first 6:08 and extending the lead to eight at 52-44. Starring later hit another three, and had his fifth trey of the evening waived off when Young was whistled for an off-the-ball offensive foul.
With 12:20 left in the game, UCI held a 56-46 lead as freshman center Conor Clifford brought down a rebound. Tied up with a Northridge opponent, Clifford wrestled the ball away, showing rare aggression with elbows flying and a tight grip on the ball; it was a moment that his coaches have been dying to see out of the somewhat passive first-year. The referees whistled a jump-ball in UCI’s favor.
On the other end of the floor, Clifford slammed a dunk and pulled himself up on the rim, earning a “Conor, Conor, Conor” chant from the crowd as Coach Turner paced along his bench screaming, “That’s a technical foul,” and imploring his players not to hang on the rim. While the “T” wasn’t called, Turner brought Clifford to the bench to make his point clear. The freshman ended his evening with eight points, two blocks and two rebounds in eight minutes.
“[Everyone was real excited], But the coach wasn’t,” Turner said, chuckling about Clifford’s dunk.
“I was excited for him for that play, and that’s a big play for him and our crowd, and all that, but we had another play like that early in the year where we had a player pull up on the rim and got a technical foul,” Turner added, having chewed out McNealy for the same offense against Vanguard in a 99-92 win last November.
“I hate that call, when the referee calls a technical for a guy who’s just showing joy for the game. They didn’t call it a technical, and I’m glad they didn’t.”
With four minutes left in the game, sophomore Travis Souza hit his second three-pointer of the evening to extend UCI’s lead to 77-57. Souza finished with seven points in eight minutes of exceptional play off the bench. The Anteaters’ three-point specialist, Souza continued to impress defensively, expanding his game and combining with Starring to hold Northridge’s Stephan Hicks to five points on 1-14 shooting.
Hicks is shooting 50 percent from the field this season, and is scoring 17.8 points per game. Shutting Hicks down is just another notch on the belt for Turner and his defensive unit that has held opponents to 64.1 points per game this season, down from 68.1 a year ago, and ranking 18th in the nation in rebounds (41.2 per game).
UCI held a 20-point lead with 3:39 to go when Northridge stormed back, pressuring the Anteaters, who were unable to get a clean in-bounds pass in or dribble past midcourt for three minutes. The Matadors scored 10 unanswered points off of four steals in that chaotic span. Northridge clawed back to a 10-point deficit with bench players John Ryan and Aaron Wright on the floor, combining for two minutes, two personal fouls and three turnovers. Having already toasted to his starters, Coach Turner anticlimactically pulled seniors Adam Folker and Michael Wilder, along with Davis, off the bench to seal the deal with 24 seconds remaining.
Davis made one of two free throw attempts, and then Souza made both of his tosses at the line to push the lead to 79-69. A missed desperate three-pointer marked the end of the evening for the Matadors, with the buzzer sounding as guard Allan Guel collected his second rebound of the evening.
“[I guess] we aren’t comfortable with an 18-point lead. We need to work on that,” Turner said.
For Irvine, the MVP had to be Starring, who ended with 14 points. The first half was too close for comfort, with Irvine’s shooting guard nowhere to be found. In the second half, Starring picked up where big men Davis and Folker left off in the first, hitting on all five of his attempts. Davis scored 12 of his 13 points in the first 20 minutes, including a jumper from just inside the three-point line.
“The coaches told me that for every tip-in that I get, I get to shoot a three-pointer,” Davis said after his buzzer beater to end the first half. Laughing, he added: “So I’ve got a three-pointer coming my way soon.”
Davis also contributed eight rebounds and a team-high five blocks. With 35 blocks this season, Davis is 21 swats away from breaking his own UCI single-season blocks record, tallying over two rejections per game this season. Along with Starring, also playing in their final homecoming games, Folker added 14 points and five rebounds, Wilder had five points, nine assists and six rebounds, and point guard Derick Flowers made a three-pointer off the bench in the first half and dished out two assists in 12 minutes.
“I didn’t even think about it [being my last Homecoming] until just now,” Starring said. “It was good. We had a good crowd, and it was nice to play in that environment.”
Irvine now heads to Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, UC Riverside on Saturday and Long Beach State on Jan. 30 for a crucial Southern California road trip. The Anteaters are 2-7 on the road this season, having lost their past two road matchups by just eight points combined. Against Fullerton, Riverside and Long Beach last season, the Anteaters were a combined 2-6, including a 65-59 win over the Titans in the Big West Tournament semifinals. If the Anteaters can take two of three, consider it a successful road trip.