PERFECT: On Senior Night in front of 3,035 fans, the ’Eaters “Beat the Beach” to remain undefeated at home.
With less than eight seconds left on the clock, senior Mike Wilder stepped up to the free throw line. Just one minute earlier, Wilder hit a three-pointer from the wing to sway the momentum in the Anteaters’ favor. Just seconds before, sophomore guard Travis Souza had thrown an errant inbounds pass to a Long Beach defender. The Beach’s sophomore sensation Mike Caffey then drained a three-pointer to pull within one point. Irvine hadn’t trailed since early in the first half, but was on the ropes.
Souza inbounded another pass, this time completing it to Wilder, who was fouled and sent to the free-throw line.
Now here we are. Wilder goes through his typical routine, wiping the bottom of his shoes, bending his knees and then tossing the ball right through the net to up the lead to two. He backs off the line, slaps a couple of hands, takes a deep breath, smiles as hands rise from all over the arena, creating Anteater snouts. Swish.
“Zot, zot, zot!” the crowd shouts as Wilder backpedals on defense with a three-point lead.
Caffey takes the pass from behind the basket, dribbles just past half-court and heaves up a prayer banking off the side of the rim just as the buzzer sounds.
Within seconds, fans and players swarm to center-court to celebrate.
“U-C-I, U-C-I, U-C-I!” they chant, celebrating a win over Long Beach State, the first place team in the Big West Conference, and an undefeated home Big West record of 9-0.
For the first time since 2011, the Anteaters defeated the rival 49ers on Saturday night, winning 72-69 in front of a crowd of 3,035 spectators.
Senior guard Daman Starring described Saturday’s win over the 49ers as “a game of runs.”
He might as well have been talking about the Eaters’ whole season. And right now, they’re on a pretty good one.
On Senior Night at the Bren, senior center Adam Folker led the way with 16 points before fouling out in the final minutes of play. Single-season blocks king Will Davis II swatted seven Long Beach shot attempts, stifling a potent 49ers offense.
UCI improved to 17-13 and 10-6 in conference. Peaking at the perfect time, Irvine extended their win streak to five, with Big West Tournament approaching on March 14-16.
For Folker, Wilder, Starring and Derick Flowers, it was a fitting Senior Night sendoff. Before the game, the four seniors were honored at half-court. They were presented with a garland of flowers while sharing the court with their loved ones. Folker, Wilder and Starring have all been stalwarts in the ’Eaters’ starting lineup this season, and Flowers, who is normally a solid reserve, joined the trio in the starting lineup on Saturday.
On an emotional night, Starring explained that he wasn’t thinking about it being his last game at the Bren, but about beating Long Beach.
“We kept the approach like any other game. It was important that we stay focused. It helps that the feeling [of graduating] hasn’t hit me yet,” Starring said.
Fittingly, Flowers, who got the Senior Day start at point guard, scored the first bucket for the ’Eaters, who jumped out to an early lead. With pressure defense that held Long Beach State to 26 percent shooting in the first half, the ’Eaters went into halftime with a 33-22 lead.
Folker chalked up the first half success to executing the fundamentals.
“We played unselfish,” Folker said. “That’s the biggest thing. We moved the ball great, made the extra pass, took good shots and played defense.”
Led by Mike Caffey’s 23 points, the 49ers came storming back in the second half. With only 2:23 left in the second half, Long Beach tied the game at 63. Wilder responded with a go-ahead three with 1:05 left, before the ’Eaters held off a 49ers buzzer beater prayer to get the 72-69 win.
“Good teams make runs. Great teams overcome that and win,” Starring said.
As part of the “Defend the Bren” series, the Bren Center had one of its best turnouts of the year. “The student section, and the UCI community as a whole, has been absolutely spectacular,” he said. “We got great energy from the fans tonight, and all throughout my career they have treated me great.”
UCI now hits the road for their final two regular season games at University of the Pacific and UC Davis.