UC Irvine was able to exact revenge on Cal State University Fullerton beating them in the Big West Tournament finals last year by completing a season sweep of CSUF on Saturday night. Freshman forward Eric Wise led the team with 20 points and eight rebounds while Michael Hunter chipped in 16 points as UCI held on to win 65-62 at Fullerton’s homecoming game.
Senior forward Kevin Bland was a monster on the boards, nabbing 12, and red-shirt freshmen guard Derrick Strings provided a boost off the bench with three 3-pointers and 11 points. UCI led by as much as 10 in the first half, finishing at 31-27.
In the second half, usually sure-handed sophomore guard Patrick Rembert made up for five turnovers by dishing out nine assists.
“We’ve been struggling with our rebounding and we really worked on it this week … Kevin Bland really stepped up tonight,” said Coach Pat Douglass. “Strings stepped up and made some shots, and we needed that because they can wear us down.”
The two teams traded baskets for most of the second half, and with 0:26 left in the game, CSUF was only down by one, 63-62. On the ensuing drive, Bland made a clutch deflection of CSUF forward Gerard Anderson’s shot.
“I thought [Josh] Akognon was going to shoot so I tried to help out on Akognon,” Bland said. “He pushed it down low and I just tried not to foul, tried to make [Anderson] shoot it over me, and I got a piece of it, so it was just as exciting [as getting a block].
Senior guard Brett Lauer then hit two clutch free throws after being fouled, making it 65-62. On CSUF’s last drive with seven seconds left, Akognon and Titan guard Jacques Streeter fumbled the ball on an exchange, allowing Hunter to bat the ball in the air as time ran out.
CSUF senior guard Akognon, who tested the NBA draft waters after his junior year, was shut down by UCI for the second time this season. Averaging 23.8 points coming into the contest, and coming off a 32-point performance against CSU Bakersfield on Tuesday, he only managed 13 points on 6-20 shooting, including 1-8 from beyond the arc. Hunter guarded him most of the night.
“He likes to shoot a lot of threes, so we tried to get him to handle the ball and drive in, which is not one of his strong suits,” Hunter said. “We figured that was the best bet for us tonight.”
The Anteater team, now winners of four of its last five games, had a chance to earn a fourth seed and first-round bye in the Big West Tournament if they had won and if Long Beach State had beaten UC Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, UCSB pulled off a last-second 3-pointer, giving the Gauchos that important fourth seed and UCI the fifth seed. The ‘Eaters begin play on Wednesday and will need to win four straight games to make the NCAA tournament.
“These kids have hung tough all year,” Douglass said. “[When] we started the year we were not really where we needed to be … I am pleased that they never quit. At one point our record was abysmal and they just kept fighting back. I’m very proud of this group.”