UC Irvine: Beached Males
UCI 57, LBSU 68
For a team that was the No. 7 seed in the Big West Tournament and had ended their season with 20 losses, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team surprisingly has quite a bit to celebrate about in 2012. Despite losing in the conference semifinals to the Long Beach State University 49ers, the Anteaters weren’t expected to do much in a rebuilding season. With one of the youngest teams in the country, and without a single senior on roster, UCI advanced to the semifinal after three straight first-round conference tournament exits.
They featured a trio of juniors who received All-Big West honors and first-ever Big West Hustle Award recipient — Adam Folker. The center won the inaugural award after averaging 8.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Mike Wilder was named All-Big West Second Team, scoring 11.5 points and grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game. Daman Starring rounded out the honors with honorable mention for all-conference. Starring scored 11.4 points per game as a junior and led by example.
Before ending their 2012 campaign at the hands of the top-seeded 49ers, Coach Russell Turner won his first-ever conference tournament game as a head coach, against the No. 2 seeded Cal State Fullerton Titans on March 8.
Long Beach entered the game Saturday evening 23-8, having lost just one conference game all season. They defeated the Anteaters by 41 points combined in the first two matchups of the 2011-12 season and defeated Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh early in the season in Pennsylvania. Long Beach had all of their starters return, many of whom have played together for four seasons. Casper Ware, one of those starters, is an NBA prospect and the Big West Player of the Year.
If Irvine hoped to knock off Long Beach, they needed to light up the scoreboard, but Irvine wasn’t able to do so. They scored 58 points, making the 49ers 22-0 this season when holding opponents under 70 points.
Carrying over the energy from defeating Fullerton the previous night, the Anteaters got out to a 9-0 lead early in the game and led throughout the majority of the first half. The two teams entered halftime with Irvine holding a one-point, 28-27 advantage. At the half, Ware had 15 points for LBSU, while Wilder led an energized Irvine team with 12 points. Despite outshooting Long Beach by 17 percent, the Anteaters took ten less shots in the first half and their inability to penetrate and find enough open shots proved to be a game-changer.
“The game is 40 minutes, it’s not won in the first four minutes,” junior guard Daman Starring said after scoring 15 points in the loss.
The 49ers found their form in the second half. They shot 13-22 from the field and got to the free-throw line 14 times compared to Irvine’s four attempts. Unable to break Long Beach’s pressing defense, the Anteaters let Long Beach take advantage of 11 points off turnovers, as LBSU outscored Irvine 41-29 in the final 20 minutes.
Irvine’s bench appeared to have missed the bus to the arena on Saturday evening because the Anteaters only had five points from non-starters, all coming from freshman Will Davis II in the semifinal loss. Davis earned his points late in the game, though, as one was a dunk with the game out of reach in the closing minutes.
UCI didn’t hold a lead after the 13:26 point in the second half when Long Beach guard Mike Caffey sank a 3-pointer to take a 45-43 lead. The 49ers wouldn’t look back, maintaining a ten-point advantage for much of the second half.
“When they changed defenses, that bothered us,” Turner said. “We allowed a lot of easy baskets.”
With one minute remaining, Long Beach led 61-52. After a series of questionable no-calls, Turner barked out, “I know this game’s over, but you still have to call it fair,” to the referees. Earlier in the game, when Long Beach played hard defense on Wilder, Turner shouted, “My man with the fro over there dropped 24 points against these guys last year and he’s being fouled all night.”
“It was a hard-fought game and Irvine had a lot to do with that,” Long Beach Coach Dan Morton said. “They were much more ready than we were.”
Long Beach advanced to the NCAA Tournament after defeating UCSB the following night, while Irvine was sent packing. Visibly disappointed by the loss, Turner spoke of how much he and his players believed they had a shot against the 24-8 49ers after the game.
“We gave ourselves a chance and that’s what we wanted to do,” Turner said. “We didn’t exactly bring the game down to the wire like we wanted to, but we believed we could beat them.”
Wilder had 15 points and six rebounds, while Long Beach kept Folker in check down low, holding the Canadian center to nine points and four rebounds. After scoring a career-high 24 points in the quarterfinals, sophomore Chris McNealy had a quiet night, totaling 11 points on 4-13 shooting.
“We’ve taken a step closer to the NCAA Tournament, which every kid in college basketball dreams of,” Turner said of his team’s first playoff victory over Fullerton the previous night. “There was a lot of positive energy from everybody after that [Fullerton] win, and that was a great experience. Fullerton beat everyone in the league and we beat them; that’s motivation for a team that returns every player.”
Like he said, the Anteaters don’t have a single senior on roster and the entire starting roster is expected to return next year. In 2012, UCI built camaraderie, and the Anteaters will look to build on their team chemistry, much like the Big West Champion Long Beach State 49ers team has in recent years, when they return in October.
UCI 65, CSUF 59
The No. 2 Cal State Fullerton Titans fell in the opening round of the Big West Tournament as UC Irvine held on for an upset on Thursday afternoon at the Honda Center.
The Anteaters managed to pull off the upset after losing to Fullerton twice during the regular season.
Although CSUF had a Big West Tournament record-setting 21 rebound performance from Omondi Amoke to compliment Orane Chin’s 20 points, UCI utilized solid ball movement and made 3-point baskets at crucial moments to counter the Titans’ attack. The Anteaters held the Titans to 37 percent shooting from the field.
“I’m proud of my team for their defensive play,” Turner said after the win. “We focused on our defensive performance coming into this tournament, because Fullerton has dominated us whenever they had the ball. Our guys showed a lot of character and courage to close out this game.”
McNealy was the star of the afternoon, scoring 24 points, making four of seven 3-pointers. Folker had a double-double, grabbing 12 rebounds and dropping 10 points. Folker continued to struggle from the charity stripe, though. He was 0-5 at the line. Wilder also added 11 points.
Irvine started fast. They nailed four threes early to take an 18-6 lead with 14:21 left in the half. UCI maintained their lead throughout the first half until the Titans scored a 3-pointer and a layup to bring the deficit down to single digits in the final 1:30 of the half
Irvine led 29-21 at the half. However, with 6:42 left to play, Chin carried the Titans’ offense and brought them close to tying the game after knocking down a trey to make it 53-51. With 4:32 remaining, McNealy received a pass from freshman Travis Souza to knock down a 3-pointer for the dagger. The Titans kept threatening despite the three-point deficit, but UCI managed to answer back, leaving CSUF no time to rally.
“This is definitely a big win for us. Some veterans have been here for a few years. I never made it past the first round previous years. It really means a lot to me,” Folker said. “We’ve got guys who played extremely well, and our coaches, I give them credit. They were overly prepared for what we were to face.”