Big West Tournament: UC Irvine Tops UC Riverside in Opening Round

Senior forward Mark Kelley grabbed just one offensive rebound Wednesday night for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team, but it was the biggest rebound of his career.
Kelley laid in a missed layup by freshman guard Michael Hunter with one minute remaining in the second half to give the Anteaters a two-point lead as they held on for a 53-52 win over UC Riverside in the opening round of the Big West Tournament.
UCI came out sluggish against the last place Highlanders and trailed by as much as 18 points (30-12) at the 7 minute, 55 second mark of the first half.
Slowly the Anteaters chipped away at the lead and tied the game for the first time at the 4:32 mark of the second half when senior forward Nic Campbell made both free throws to even the game at 45 points.
Minutes later, Kelley hit a turnaround jumper in the post to give UCI a 51-49 lead with 1:49 remaining; it was UCI’s first lead since it led 3-2 in the first half.
Following two UCR free throws, Hunter turned the ball over trying to feed Kelley in the paint.
Hunter quickly redeemed himself, creating a steal and rushing down the court for a layup opportunity.
Hunter missed the shot but Kelley came rushing down the court and laid the ball back into the basket to give UCI a 53-51 lead.
‘I thought Mike was going to bury the layup,’ Kelley said. ‘I just jumped and the ball came off the rim and I laid it in.’
UCI’s lead was cut to one when Riverside’s Dedrick Bates made one of two free throws with just over 45 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing Anteater possession, junior forward Patrick Sanders bobbled the pass in the post and turned the ball over.
Holding for the last shot and trailing 53-52, Riverside went to its play maker Larry Cunningham.
Sanders forced Cunningham to take a difficult shot on the baseline, which he missed and went out of bounds off a UCI player with 5.6 seconds left in the game.
Riverside was unable to get Cunningham free from the UCI defense and Henrik Thomsen threw up a desperation three pointer from the corner which fell into the arms of UCI junior forward Darren Fells as time expired, giving the Anteaters the 53-52 win.
UCI used a team effort on the offensive end to get the win with five players scoring eight points or more.
Sanders led the team with 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds, Campbell scored 10 points, Kelley and Fells added nine points apiece and Hunter added eight points.
‘It’s a game of two halves,’ said UCR Head Coach Vonn Webb. ‘We came out with a lot of energy and did a great job defensively. In the second half, we let down. UCI stepped up the intensity and we didn’t match it.’
‘Our backs were against the wall,’ said UCI head coach Pat Douglass. ‘I think we were ready to play but we were a little hesitant, a little nervous maybe so we had to really bear down defensively. We kind of fought the whole game it took us the last four minutes to take the lead. Our guys didn’t quit.’
With the victory, the Anteaters advanced to the quarterfinals to take on UCSB on Thursday, March 8.