60 Seconds: Men’s Basketball in the Big West Tournament

What’s the significance of a minute, of 60 seconds?

At the Honda Center on Saturday night during the championship game in the Big West Tournament, 60 seconds stood between a birth to March Madness and a trip home at a season’s end.

After having beat Long Beach State the previous night 67-60 for a spot in the finals, UCI was trailing 59-52, while the University of the Pacific maintained a seven-point lead.

With 60 seconds to go, Mike Wilder fired a three as the crowd held its breath.

In that moment, the game was so much more than just a game. When a team is on the brink of life or death, 60 seconds is the difference between a chance to dance, or a period at the end of a 20-15 season.

A season that saw an undefeated record at home.

A season that celebrated a 72-69 victory over cross-town rival LBSU in front of 3,035 fans.

A season that ushered in more than 1,000 students to cheer for an ’Eater victory as UCI Beat the Beach.

“This team single-handedly put UCI basketball on the map. I am so proud to be an Anteater,” said second-year Marie Brashears.

As a fourth-year, I’ve sat at countless games, and have rooted for the teams that bleed blue and gold.

And tonight, I wasn’t alone.

With 60 seconds on the clock, UCI was on its feet. The band, the cheer and dance teams, the students, the alumni … ’Eater Nation held its breath as the three from Wilder just missed.

Pacific secured the rebound, and Wilder sent the Tigers to the line to shoot two on a foul.

Two made baskets from the Tigers meant a nine-point advantage for UOP.

The Irvine fans were undeterred and continued to yell just as they had in the first half.  Most fans stood the duration of the game.

Junior Chris McNealy gave the ’Eaters a reason to smile as he nailed a shot from beyond the arc with 58 seconds on the clock to get UCI within six points at 61-55.

Hope.

As the clock read 44.3, Alex Young fouled Tiger Rodrigo Souza and after his two missed attempts, the ’Eaters were still in the game.

“Come on Irvine you got this,” rang the fans decked out in gold.

“We can do this!” shouted the student section.

At the 28-second mark senior Daman Starring fired a shot from beyond the arc that failed to find the basket.

Six points. Just six points needed to tie the game.

After fouling UOP two more times, the Tigers from Stockton further distanced themselves from the ’Eaters as Pacific slowly crawled toward the NCAA tournament at 64-55.

Will Davis II high-fived Travis Souza as Souza reentered the game with a job: to make a three-pointer, and to keep the ’Eaters alive.

Less than 16 seconds remained.

Souza inbounded the ball, made his way down the court, received a pass, got set and took his shot … no good.

Pacific walked by the Irvine section brimming from ear to ear.

Six seconds on the clock.  64-55 on the scoreboard.

Turnover for the ’Eaters.

Five seconds, four seconds, three, two, one, and the buzzer sounded.

Pacific cleared its bench and orange towels were thrown into the air as a team that was also undefeated at home, and who broke its record for wins at home, was going to the Tournament.

UC Irvine was going home, but for one of the first times, it was not going home alone.

Yellow shirts filled three entire sections on Saturday night as blue and gold pom-poms, face paint and signs decorated the stands.

UCI coach Russell Turner passed the student section clapping as Irvine continued to cheer, even in defeat. The ’Eaters on the court turned towards their fan section and gave a nod.

For some of us, it was our last run at the tournament as an undergraduate.  And for some, it was the last time to suit up in an ’Eater uniform.

But the brilliant thing about UCI, is that you’re an ’Eater for life.

As I stood in line tonight in anticipation of entering the storied arena, I had the privilege of standing behind the man responsible for senior Daman Starring’s scholarship and listened as a proud Anteater as the men in front of me discussed how classy of a player he is and has always been.

Not only that, but how proud he was to see him, and all of the seniors, play on such a historic stage Saturday night.

“Adam Folker is going places,” said a man sporting an Irvine baseball cap.

“He’s so smart and talented,” added another.

As an ’Eater I stood there so proud to be able to associate myself with men who play passionately day in and day out with “Irvine” scrolled across their chests.

Senior Mike Wilder, with clutch three-point shooting gave us “Afro-Thunder.”  Wilder, who plays with courage and compassion had 302 points on the season, averaging 8.6 per game and shot 34.7 percent from the field.

While sporting a zero on the back of his jersey, the inspiring senior Derick Flowers shot 76.9 percent from the line making 29-of-38 free throws on the season.

Adam Folker, who dedicated five years to his collegiate career as an Anteater averaged 9.5 points per game, led the team by shooting 57.8 percent from the field and played Saturday night on a torn MCL in his knee.  The man behind the #FOLKERSYSTEM held nothing back.

And senior Daman Starring: led the team with a 40.6 percent success rate from beyond the arc, a 79.2 percent success rate from the line, 31 steals and an average of 13.1 points-per-game on the season.

And in the last 60 seconds on Saturday night, the boys in blue gave ’Eater Nation something to cheer about, as they have their entire careers.

In light of defeat, I was overwhelmed by a sense of pride. Most people scoff at DI schools that do not house a football team, saying that we can’t possibly know what a real crowd is like. And while we might not have thousands upon thousands of fans show up on gameday, we showed up tonight.

At the post game press conference Turner said, “We are disappointed to not come out on top, but I am extremely proud of this team. We fought and they were fearless.”

Thank you UCI for a fearless 60 seconds, a fearless 40 minutes, a fearless tournament, a fearless season and a fearless four years.

Nights like these define a player, a coach, a fan … a university.

Tonight was 60 seconds of belonging.  60 seconds of college.  60 seconds of uncertainty.  And 60 seconds of strength.

In those 60 seconds, I have never been more proud to be an Anteater.