In what could very well be the marquee Big West Conference Championship preview, UC Irvine was able to hold off UC Santa Barbra in a hard fought game, 71-60. The win gave the ’Eaters sole possession of first place in the Big West Conference and gave them a one game lead over UCSB, with an overall conference record of 11-3.
UC Irvine was led by senior guard Chris McNealy, as he was perfect from the field, going five for five from the field, and adding 17 points and four rebounds. McNealy picked up the scoring for UCI in the second half by being more aggressive, as he only attempted one shot in the first half before getting hot from the field and taking control of the game.
UCI led at the half, 29-27, building a lead an eight point lead behind the shooting of freshman guard Luke Nelson who totaled 10 points at the half on 4 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from behind the arc. UC Santa Barbra outshot UC Irvine by shooting 46% from the field, but gave away too many points on the charity stripe, as the ’Eaters were able to convert, knocking down 13 of 14 shots from the charity stripe.
The game was ultimately decided at the free throw line as UCI was able to knock down 24 of 30 free throws, while UCSB only converted six of their fourteen free throws. It was a tightly contested game that had 8 lead changes and several controversial calls, living up to the championship expectations. UCI was able to pull through with their total team effort and rebounded from a loss against Cal State Northridge, winning 7 out of their last 8 conference games.
McNealy spoke about his nerves heading into the game by saying he never expected anything less, “No nerves came into place, its two of the top teams in the league battling for the number one spot, and it’s going to be a battle.”
Coach Turner praised McNealy’s effort in the big game, “for a senior to rise to the moment, like that, in a game like this, it’s really special for him. It does not surprise me at all. That’s what everybody on our team knows he’s capable of, and come to expect from him; but a lot of our guys played well and it was a full team effort.”
McNealy also was very pleased by the defensive effort his team put together as they held UCSB to only 60 points. “To hold a team that is as offensively explosive as Santa Barbra to 60 points, that means you have to play really well as a team; and I thought we did that,” Said McNealy.
Coach Turner isn’t letting the team get too excited over the big win and mention that he thought the team would be better off shifting their focus to the remaining games of the season; “there’s still a long way to go this season. We got three games left, another week and half; and we just want to compete.”
The win puts the ’Eaters in a great situation to finish the year as the number one seed coming out of the Big West Conference, as their remanding games are all against teams with a sub .500 records, opening the door for UCI to finish as the number one seed for the first time since 2002. UCI took on Cal Poly on Saturday and started the month off with a 55-48 win. UCI’s remaining opponents are Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis; two teams that combine for a .350 win percentage on the year.
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