The stage was set.
A rematch of last year’s semifinal matchup between the UC Irvine men’s basketball team and their fourth seeded rival Long Beach State was slated Friday night at the Honda Center — with last year’s encounter going in favor of the 49ers, 77-72. Irvine and Long beach were 5-6 in head-to head matchups in the conference tournament with the ‘Eaters falling to the 49ers for four of their last five semifinal games.
This time around, the ‘Eaters would get the sweet delight of eliminating their Black and Blue Rival in the Big West Conference Tournament with a 62-57 victory to propel them into the championship game for the sixth time in program history and place them one step closer to reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
“I’m excited and honored to play a high-level college basketball game against a great team and program and come out on top,” said head coach Russell Turner. “We had a great defensive effort once again that led to the win. I thought we showed championship caliber when we went down in the second half and we tightened the screws defensively and made some big plays.”
Senior guard Jaron Martin continued to have the hot hand and led the ‘Eaters with 18 points on 7-16 shooting from the floor. Despite struggling to shoot in the game, senior guard Luke Nelson finished the game with 14 points (5-14 FG) and garnered two rebounds and two assists.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway demonstrated his conference Defensive Player of the Year caliber and notched nine rebounds, eight points, and five blocks — half of the ‘Eaters’ 10 total blocked shots. Their 10 blocks was both a season-high for the team and now ranks for second all time in Big West Tournament history.
“One of my jobs is just to protect the rim and as long as our team is doing our job, everybody moving to their spots, everybody is playing tendencies, and everything we talk about before the game then that just allows me to do my job and allow my other teammates to defend and stop the ball,” said Galloway.
The ‘Eaters shot 46.3 percent from the floor in the game while holding the 49ers to 31.8 percent. 10 different ‘Eaters scored in the contest as they garnered 16 total points from the bench. Along with their blocked shots, the ‘Eaters picked off five steals and forced 10 49er turnovers — which turned into 15 points in their favor.
“We’ve been a defensive team for the last four year years and that has been our identity and allowed us to put ourselves in positions like this,” said Turner. “If we could recruit well to a defensive identity and get guys to buy in and play together, we can utilize the intelligence that our players have to be good [defensively].”
Four of Long Beach State’s players scored in double-figures with junior guard Justin Bibbins leading the 49ers with 15 points (4-15 FG). Sophomore forward Temidayo Yussuf earned his second double-double of the season with 10 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. The 49ers ended up outrebounding the ‘Eaters 44-35 and posting 16 second chance points as a result.
There were nine lead changes in the first half with the ‘Eaters getting some separation with 11:28 remaining in the first with a 7-0 run to go up 20-14. Freshman center Brad Greene anchored the spurt by ponding in four points and three rebounds in just four minutes of play. The run blossomed to an 18-8 run before Bibbins hit a three before the end of the half to trim the ‘Eater lead to 31-25 heading into intermission.
After trading the second half’s opening buckets, the 49ers went on a 14-4 run to grab a 44-42 lead against the ‘Eaters with a little over 10 minutes left to play. With their NCAA tournament at risk, the senior duo of Nelson and Martin connected on Irvine’s next seven points to bolster the 7-0 run that gave back the ‘Eaters the lead for good. Nelson scored nine of his 15 points in the second half and willed the existing run to turn into a 15-5 spurt that put the ‘Eaters up 57-51 with 3:36 remaining in the game. Long Beach would cut to lead to just four in the waning minutes of the game but Irvine maintained their composure by not turning the ball over and making key shots from the free throw line to win them the game and advance them to the tournament final.
“One thing about our team is that we don’t panic,” said Martin. “At this stage and this late in the season, we’ve shown growth in our team and to go down by four with ten minutes to go, that just shows how much fight and resilience we have as a team and I’m just proud of my team for that.”
UCI will face the winner of UC Davis/Cal State Fullerton tomorrow night for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2.