Limit turnovers? Check. Break the press? Check. Crash the boards? Check.
With their season on the line, the UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team played solid, textbook basketball on Friday night against Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament.
Up one with 5.3 seconds left, all UCI had to do was D-up and stop CSULB one last time to seal the win.
49er junior guard Aaron Nixon had torched the Anteaters all night long, so it wasn’t surprising to find that he would be taking the last shot for his team.
Dribbling the ball to the left corner, Nixon almost ran into his teammate, momentarily lost the ball, but picked it up, squared up and sank an improbable three-point shot as time expired, leaving the Anteater faithful speechless and ending UCI’s season with a heartbreaking loss, 75-73, in front of 3,213 at the Anaheim Convention Center on Friday night.
UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass’ post-game comments after the game best described the team’s emotions.
‘This one is very difficult to swallow,’ Douglass said. ‘I’m proud of our team’s effort but disappointed. That’s basketball. [Nixon] made an incredible shot and that’s hard to endure.’
Douglass also said that his players executed what he wanted them to do on the last play.
‘We said we’d switch every screen. Every kid did what he was supposed to do,’ Douglass said.
Nixon carried the 49ers on his back and finished with a game-high 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including six of nine from beyond the arc, but none more important than his last trey.
‘I just heard people say ‘shoot it’ and I looked up and shot it,’ Nixon said. ‘There’s not much I can say about it other than it went in.’
Long Beach State Head Coach Larry Reynolds was more than happy to come out with the victory, jokingly describing that it was his intention to have the final play unravel the way it did.
‘The shot was just how I drew it up in the huddle,’ Reynolds said. ‘I wanted to stumble dribble all the way to the left corner and try to get up a three falling out of bounds at the buzzer. … It was a tremendous game.’
The final play exemplified the seesaw battle that featured seven ties and 11 lead changes, and brought out the best from the Anteaters.
UCI went up by four points at 56-52 with 14:13 to go on a reverse layup by senior guard Aaron Fitzgerald. Long Beach State took control of the game from there by draining back-to-back three pointers. Instead of wilting, the Anteaters hung tough, and fought back when they were down six at the 3:44 mark at 66-72.
Rarely used junior forward Mark Kelley came in for UCI and converted a traditional three-point play. Senior guard Ross Schraeder caught a rebound and tipped in a bucket following a three-point miss. With 16 seconds left, Fitzgerald badly missed a three-point shot from the corner, but after UCI hustled to get the offensive rebound, senior guard Shamar Armstrong grabbed the loose ball and swished an eight-foot floater as the shot clock expired to go up 73-72 before Nixon’s fateful heroics.
Kelly came in and scored 11 points in only seven minutes, while sophomore center Darren Fells muscled his way to 13 points and seven rebounds.
But the Anteaters were led again by their two senior guards, Schraeder and Fitzgerald. Schraeder scored a team-high 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while Fitzgerald played almost flawlessly at the point, dishing out 10 assists while only committing one turnover, and grabbing four steals.
However, the loss was the only thing the Anteaters could focus on after the game.
‘You see these types of games on TV all the time but you never expect it to be you,’ Fitzgerald said. ‘It definitely hurts how, especially how hard our team played all game.’
After their regular-season finale against Long Beach State two weeks ago during which the 49ers drove down the lane and made close baskets at will to win by 20 points, Douglass changed his defensive scheme for this game. The Anteaters protected the lane and dared the 49ers to beat them from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, their plan backfired as Long Beach State shot 50 percent from three-point range, 17 for 34. Those 17 three-pointers were a Big West tournament record.
Despite the barrage of threes, Douglass was impressed with the response from his team.
‘Going into the game, I thought if they shot 50 percent from the three, we’d be in trouble,’ Douglass said. ‘But our guys walled up defensively and battled.’
UCI’s three-point and free-throw shooting, dependable all season long, failed them Friday night. What might haunt them about this night is that they were one for nine from beyond the arc after intermission and only made six of 11 free throws during the game.
But knowing that they left it all on the floor, the Anteaters held their heads up high after the game.
‘I think everyone played extremely hard and nobody should feel bad about themselves,’ Fitzgerald said.
Schraeder echoed his teammates’ sentiments, saying ‘Everybody played hard and [the referees] just let us play and that made it a fun game.’
‘I thought that after last night’s Fullerton-Long Beach State game that it would be a while before I saw a game played at that level and with that much excitement,’ Douglass said. ‘But tonight’s game I thought was the same and I’m proud to be a part of a game of that magnitude as well as both teams played. … Both sides made tough shots down the stretch.’
UCI finishes the season 16-13, Douglass’ fifth winning season within the last six years. On Saturday night, Long Beach State fell to Pacific in the championship game of the Big West Conference tournament, 78-70. Pacific (24-7), led by conference player of the year Christian Maraker, will represent the Big West in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year as a No. 13 seed when they take on No. 4 Boston College in the Minneapolis regional this week.