Chuma Awaji’s night went from almost disastrous to heroic in a matter of seconds.
The junior guard hit six consecutive free throws in the final 15.3 seconds of the game to give the UC Irvine men’s basketball team a much-needed 88-84 victory against rivals Long Beach State on Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.
Moments earlier, with the Anteaters leading 82-81 and facing a full-court press, Awaji dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds with 28.7 seconds left in the game.
On the ensuing possession, the Anteaters were able to get the ball back on the defensive end due in large part to the play of senior forward Nic Campbell.
Campbell stripped Long Beach guard Kejuan Johnson and the ball fell into junior forward Darren Fells’ hands. Fells quickly passed the ball to Awaji, who was fouled and promptly made two free-throws to give Irvine the 84-81 advantage with 15.3 seconds on the clock.
Long Beach then ran a pick- and-roll with Johnson and forward Aaron Nixon, hoping to get Nixon an open attempt behind the arc.
Instead, Johnson nearly turned the ball over before falling to the floor to recover possession. With no passing lanes open and only 6.8 seconds remaining, Johnson called a timeout.
The only problem was that Long Beach had none remaining.
The 49ers were called for a technical foul and Awaji stepped up to the line and made two more free-throws to give the Anteaters an 86-81 lead.
Long Beach failed to give up as Louis Darby hit another three-pointer for the 49ers to cut the Anteaters’ lead to 86-84.
With 3.2 seconds left, Awaji was fouled again and swished both free-throws to give the Anteaters the 88-84 victory.
‘I had to step up to the line with confidence,’ Awaji said. ‘After the first two went down, I knew that I was in rhythm.’
The Anteaters nearly blew a 25-point lead against the 49ers, but held on at the end to push their record to 10-11 overall and 4-3 in the Big West.
In the first half, Irvine was on fire, shooting over 62 percent from the field (18-29), including 6-9 from three-point land. The Anteaters built their largest lead of the night at the 7:25 mark of the first half when junior forward Patrick Sanders dunked off a fast break to push the Irvine lead to 41-16.
‘It was as good a half as we’ve had,’ said Head Coach Pat Douglass.
Irvine cooled off in the second half, while Long Beach got hot.
Long Beach shot 60 percent from the field in the second half and was led by Johnson and Nixon.
Johnson scored a game-high 23 points but made the two crucial turnovers at the end of the game which resulted in Awaji’s free throws.
Nixon, the Big West Conference’s third-leading scorer, had 19 points even though he struggled to find his shot, shooting 5-17 from the field.
Long Beach cut the Irvine lead to one point on two occasions, 71-70 and 82-81, but the Anteaters were able to withstand the surge.
‘No we weren’t worried at all,’ Awaji said, discussing Long Beach’s rally. ‘We knew what we had to do. We kept our composure and stayed with the offense.’
Douglass added, ‘This was a big win for us. [Long Beach] is a good team. They really came back and played well against us and we held tough and it was important to win this one.’
The Anteaters used a balanced scoring attack to defeat the 49ers. Six Anteaters scored in double-figures led by senior center Mark Kelley, who scored a team-high 15 points, while grabbing nine rebounds and recording five block shots.
Sanders scored 14 points, and senior forward Nic Campbell tallied 13 points off the bench, while Fells and freshman guard Michael Hunter added 12 points a piece. Sophomore guard Adam Templeton scored 10 points for Irvine, which held the lead throughout the game.
‘We just had to maintain our intensity,’ Hunter said. ‘They are a good ball club and they came out really explosive.’
The Anteaters were able to jump out to such a large lead mostly because of their inside game. Kelley and Fells were able to establish themselves in the post and the Anteaters outscored Long Beach 34-24 inside paint and outrebounded the 49ers 37-29.
‘I thought that Kelly gave us a lift,’ Douglass said. ‘His presence inside offensively especially in the first half was big.’
The Anteaters’ win knocked Long Beach (13-6, 4-2 Big West) out of first place in the conference standings.
‘Long Beach is one of the better teams in the conference and we have a bit of history with them from the tournament last year so it was nice to get a win against them,’ Campbell said.