UCI One Win Away From First March Madness

UCI 67, LBSU 60

 

Marlon Castillo/New University

Marlon Castillo/New University

For the first time since 2008, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team is headed to the Big West Conference Championship game, which will take place at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. The No. 4 seeded Anteaters will face No. 2 Pacific. Not since 1993 has a No. 4 seed (Long Beach State) won the Big West Tournament.

Last year, UC Irvine started four juniors and a sophomore against a veteran Long Beach State roster in the semifinals of the conference tournament. On Friday night, UC Irvine didn’t need their veterans to get quite possibly the biggest win in the history of the men’s basketball Black & Blue Rivalry.

With two-time Big West Hustle Award recipient Adam Folker on the sidelines, the Anteaters resorted to a small lineup that they hadn’t played with in a year’s time. Folker was fully suited up, but his right leg was heavily bandaged. As he jogged onto the court for warm-ups, he did so gingerly. Since December, all he’s been talking about is winning the Big West Championship. Humbling to say the least, UCI had to defeat Long Beach without their stabilizing presence in the paint, their emotional leader.

Senior small forward Mike Wilder was swapped to the power forward position. At six-foot-two inches, Wilder struggled to find shots on the offensive end, but held his own on defense. At shooting guard, Daman Starring was smothered by Long Beach on Friday night. He started 1-10 from the field and only had two points in the first half. Starring finished strong, though, with seven points and seven assists.

Sophomore Fresno State transfer John Ryan tried to fill in as best as he could in the paint for Folker, scoring two points in 10 minutes.

To win, UCI had to play small. So that left the game in the hands of a junior, a sophomore and a freshman, and boy, did we see a glimpse into the future of the Anteaters.

Chris McNealy, the junior, started in place of Folker, totaling 13 points and seven rebounds.

Will Davis II, the sophomore, brought an abundance of energy that the team needed given Folker’s absence. With a two-point lead and less than two minutes to go, Davis swatted a ball two rows deep into the crowd. It was all the momentum UCI needed. Davis finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.

Alex Young, the freshman, played as if he was facing a high school basketball team. He was poised, he was smart and he was the leader. With Starring equalized, the Anteaters needed someone to step up on the offensive end. It wasn’t Wilder, like it had been so often over the past three years; it was Young.

 

First Half:

The game started with a showdown that pitted Young against junior Kaela King of Long Beach. Young scored the game’s first five points, drilling a three-pointer and then sinking a lobbed shot while running through the lane. But King answered. The Arizona State transfer hit a layup of his own, followed by a three-pointer, right after the first timeout of the game. Young 5, King 5.

Tied at 14, Young and King each had seven apiece. Young would finish with a game-high 18 points on 5-9 shooting, while hitting all six of his free-throw attempts. He also added four assists and only committed one turnover.

“The story of the game is about turnovers. We didn’t turn it over. If you don’t turn it over, Long Beach doesn’t run,” UCI head coach Russell Turner said.

UCI finished with seven turnovers, compared to the 49ers’ 12.

King finished with 15 points and eight rebounds for the 49ers, playing 39 of the game’s 40 minutes.

With the Anteaters up 22-20, McNealy hit a jump-shot to extend the lead to four. He then swiped the ball away from a Long Beach opponent at half-court and ran unscathed to the basket, pushing off with two feet to throw down an emphatic dunk. Timeout, Long Beach.

The 49ers came out of the timeout shooting. King sank a jumper, and within 30 seconds, forward Tony Freeland scored in the paint and drew a foul. Freeland made his foul shot to put Long Beach up 28-26.

On the other end, sophomore Travis Souza buried a three-pointer with 35 seconds remaining in the first half, putting UCI up 29-28.

The Anteaters then got the ball back as Starring looked to make his presence felt prior to halftime. Starring dribbled into the paint, and then tried to kick a pass to Wilder, but it was deflected to the other side of half-court. Starring retrieved the ball with two defenders surrounding him, took a few steps past half-court and heaved up a long three-pointer. Just as the ball left his hands, the buzzer sounded, and the shot went in.

Both teams headed to the locker room as the referees reviewed the play. After about five minutes of deliberation, the refs determined that the ball was still in Starring’s hand when the shot-clock went off, leaving 0.8 seconds on the game clock.

Marlin Agoub/New University

Marlin Agoub/New University

In a rare sight, both teams returned from the locker room for one final in-bounds pass. Coach Turner put UCI’s all-time single-season blocks champ, Davis, in to guard the passer. Davis tipped the pass, starting and ending the clock before Long Beach could get a shot off. The two teams headed back to the locker room with Irvine leading 29-28.

“The refs told me it really wasn’t that close,” Turner said of Starring’s three-pointer at the buzzer.

“I think Daman was only concerned with his shooting percentage,” the coach said, chuckling.

 

Second Half:

To start the second half, Long Beach scored four unanswered points off of a free-throw by forward Dan Jennings, and then a three-pointer from Big West Player of the Year James Ennis, who would become one of the biggest stories of the game. Just as the Anteaters had to deal with Folker on their bench, Long Beach had to manage with Ennis in foul trouble.

Down 32-29, Davis was fouled and made his layup. He then sank the free-throw to tie it up at 32. Ennis then hit another three-pointer for Long Beach. Sophomore guard Mike Caffey, who had been quiet on the offensive end all night, then made a long two-pointer to extend the 49ers’ lead to five. But once again, Davis dropped two more points in the paint for the ’Eaters.

Freeland finished off the scoring frenzy for Long Beach, forcing Turner to take a timeout, as the Anteaters saw their halftime lead slip and now trailed, 41-34, with 15:25 remaining. Just as the Beach began to heat up, Ennis committed his fourth foul, coming one away from fouling out with more than 12 minutes to play.

With 11:36 remaining in the game, UCI was riding a scoring drought that had gone for more than five minutes when McNealy hit a three-pointer just in front of the UCI bench.

Young later drove frantically to the basket, was tripped and tossed the ball high off the glass as he dove to the floor. The ball rattled around for a couple of seconds and then broke through the net. Long Beach led 43-41 with 9:21 remaining.

Jennings banked a shot off the glass to give Long Beach a 49-43 lead with 6:33 to play, but was answered by another clutch three-pointer by Irvine sharpshooter Travis Souza.

The two teams then traded four straight baskets, starting with a well-contested layup for Caffey of Long Beach, then a three-pointer for Wilder of Irvine, then another field goal for Caffey, and after a Starring miss, Davis tipped the rebound in to cut the deficit to two. Coach Turner strategically ended the frenzy with a timeout after his team’s basket. Long Beach 53, UC Irvine 51, 4:25 left on the clock.

One minute later, Young hit a clutch three-pointer to give UCI their first lead in about 14 minutes of play, 54-53. Then, on the defensive end, Davis rejected a shot like Dikembe Mutombo in a Geiko commercial. Davis and the UCI crowd erupted with emotion.

Leading 59-55, Young skied for a rebound on the defensive end. A whistle blew. A foul called. James Ennis, the conference player of the year, was whistled for going over Young’s back for the rebound and fouls out. Ennis finished with 11 points and three rebounds in 33 minutes. Had he not been in foul trouble, the game would likely have played out much differently, as Ennis was unable to play aggressively on the boards.

After the game, Ennis stared into the ground throughout the majority of the press conference.

“I’m just down on myself because I let my teammates down,” he said.

Long Beach coach Dan Monson jumped in with one of the classier quotes of the entire tournament, stating, “We’re here because of [Ennis]. He’s the most valuable player of this league. You win as a team and you lose as a team. He wanted it so bad today that he got into foul trouble. If the only thing he did wrong today is get into foul trouble, we’ll live with that.”

Up 61-55, Davis had no Ennis to bother him in the paint. Starring cut to the basket and dropped a pass into Davis’ hands. The sophomore forward slammed an emphatic dunk home, putting the game out of reach. With 13.3 seconds on the clock, UCI forced a turnover and Young was sent to the free-throw line to add his 17th and 18th points of the evening.  Capping off a 16-7 run when it mattered most, UCI defeated Long Beach, 67-60.

After the game, Coach Turner shook hands with Monson, the Big West Coach of the Year, and his team. He then proceeded to the crowd to kiss his son – Darius – in the front row, high-five fans and throw up a zot sign.

Marlon Castillo/New University

Marlon Castillo/New University

UC Irvine is now just 40 minutes away from qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament in school history.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the effort my team put forth,” Turner said.

Turner believes in his freshman point guard, so much so that he started Young over senior Derick Flowers in December. Young played like a veteran on Friday evening, and spoke like one too.

“We’re 40 minutes away from [the tournament], but tomorrow anything could happen,” Young said. “It’s going to come down to defense.”

When asked who he’d like to face in the championship game, before Cal Poly and Pacific got under way, Turner said, “I hope they both lose.”

While comical, Turner may be right. Cal Poly lost on Friday night, and Pacific might be next, on Saturday evening.

The Pacific Tigers eked out a buzzer-beating tip-in to send Cal Poly packing late Friday evening. UCI assistant coaches Ali Ton and Nick Booker were courtside, doing their homework, as the rest of the team rested up for Saturday night.

The win over Long Beach gives UC Irvine 20 wins, which is the most the program has had since the 2002-03 season. Last year, the Anteaters won 12 games. They have now won eight of their last nine games.

 

Big West Championship Preview:

 

UCI (20-14) and Pacific (21-12) split their season series. Irvine lost at Pacific one week ago, 70-62, and defeated the Tigers at the Bren Events Center in Irvine on Feb. 20, 68-59. In front of an Orange County crowd in 2012-13, UC Irvine is 15-1, with their lone loss coming at the Bren against LSU on Dec. 18.

Pacific pulled out a defensive battle on Friday night against Cal Poly. Junior Tony Gill, who gave the Tigers 20 points on 7-8 shooting, led the way. With the game tied and less than 10 seconds left against Cal Poly, junior guard Lorenzo McCloud took a fade-away jump-shot for the win. The shot missed but was gathered by senior forward Travis Fulton in the paint. Fulton tipped it in with 1.3 seconds remaining on the clock, giving Pacific the 55-53 win over Cal Poly.

The Anteaters aren’t the only team in the tournament with heroics on their side. Coach Russell Turner hopes to make his first trip to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, but Pacific Coach Bob Thomason hopes to end his career in the tournament. Thomason is retiring at season’s end.

Marlon Castillo/New University

Marlon Castillo/New University

Will Folker play on Saturday evening? We’ll see. Playing on hardwood that is laid over the ice at the Honda Center, it’d be fitting for the Canadian center, who spent years dribbling a frozen ball in the winters of Markham, Ontario, to finish his Big West career off with a meaningful contribution to the team he has been boasting about for months. After a long recovery from hip surgery, Folker’s experience is key, but he might be a liability playing hurt.

“I thought about bringing [Folker] in when we were down to give the team an emotional lift,” Turner admitted of the Long Beach game.

Folker’s status is still probable, but without a doubt, he’ll be suited up.

So many storylines are in place as the No. 2 Pacific Tigers face No. 4 UC Irvine tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

Will this be the last game of Daman Starring, Mike Wilder, Adam Folker and Derick Flowers’ collegiate careers? Will Folker play with a heavily bandaged leg? Will the Anteaters advance to their first NCAA Tournament in school history? Will Bob Thomason go out with a loss in the Big West Tournament, or will he advance to the NCAA Tournament? So many questions to be answered – BE THERE!