Pacific defeats UC Irvine, 64-55, in Big West men's tournament

The Tigers take an early lead and hold on to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

UC Irvine men's basketball team will not be making its first NCAA tournament appearance.

This is not the year to finally fear the Anteater.

Top-seeded Pacific jumped to an early lead Saturday night and never lost it on its way to a 64-55 win in the Big West championship game before a crowd of 6,795 at the Honda Center.

Pacific (22-12) led by as many as 13 points in the second half when Irvine (20-15) got energized after Will Davis II jammed in a jarring dunk off a lob pass from Michael Wilder.

Two more Irvine baskets cut the lead to six and forced a timeout with 13:35 left.

Irvine, though, later cut the lead to three on Daman Starring's three-pointer.

The Anteaters, however, could never get closer. Pacific made enough free throws in the final few minutes to seal the win.

The Tigers are headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

Tony Gill led Pacific with 19 points while Starring led Irvine with 19.

Pacific led by 11 at the half. Irvine managed only 20 points while making only seven of 27 shot attempts (25.9%). The Anteaters were one for 10 on their three-point attempts.

The only first-half good news for Irvine was the return of senior forward Adam Folker, who missed the last four games with a leg injury suffered at a March 6 practice. Folker averaged 15.8 points in his last four games but scored only two first-half points in 10 minutes.

Saturday's winner faces long odds, as a No. 15 or 16, in the NCAA tournament field.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi on Saturday night had the Big West champion (he projected Pacific) playing No. 2 Miami at the East subregional in Lexington, Ky. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com projected Pacific in the West as a No. 2 playing New Mexico in Salt Lake City.

It's too bad one team had to lose because both had first-week NCAA tournament stories worth telling.

Pacific players were making one last run for Coach Bob Thomason, retiring this year after 25 seasons in Stockton.

"Obviously, you couldn't have scripted it any better," Thomason said on going to the NCAA tournament in his final season of coaching.

The 63-year-old Thomason entered Saturday's game with a 435-322 overall record, while his 248 Big West victories ranked most in conference history.

Thomason was recruited to Pacific by former coach Dick Edwards and averaged 17.2 points per game before the advent of the three-point clock.

He was named head coach in 1988 and has been in Stockton since.

Thomason isn't the sentimental type and was focused this week on getting his team through the Big West tournament.

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