UC Irvine keeps NCAA hopes alive with 63-54 win over UC Riverside

UC Irvine advances to Big West tournament quarterfinal with a 63-54 victory over UC Riverside

There are games you are just fortunate to walk away from intact.

UC Irvine finally exhaled Thursday, after a hardscrabble evening in the Big West tournament. When it was over, and a 63-54 first-round victory over UC Riverside was secured, the Anteaters could look forward to at least one more day of this.

"We survived, so we advanced," Coach Russell Turner said. "We have been through this situation before."

A year ago, Irvine entered the tournament as regular-season champions. They were bounced in the semifinals, denying the Anteaters a chance at their first NCAA tournament appearance.

So getting out a little battered, but not beaten, Thursday, with a spot in Friday's semifinals against UC Santa Barbara, was satisfying.

"A win is a win," Irvine guard Luke Nelson said.

There was so much consternation on the Irvine side throughout the game that Anteaters fans didn't feel comfortable bursting into a "I believe that we will win" chant until nine seconds were left.

By then Alex Young had made four free throws to put a stake in the Highlanders, part of the 18-6 run to finish the game. Will Davis II had seven of his team-high 17 points during the finishing kick.

"We made the plays down the stretch that you have to make to win," Turner said. "That's the nature of tournament basketball."

The Anteaters (19-12) are well-acquainted with the nature of conference tournament basketball. It's the NCAA tournament where they lack the reference point.

Irvine has gone 38 seasons on the Division I level without an NCAA appearance. Getting a step closer to ending that streak required enduring a Riverside team that had the look of a nasty rec league team at first glance.

The Highlanders competed as if their meal money was on the line. They contested everything. Everything. When Davis powered a two-handed dunk, Riverside center Alex Larsson punched the ball back through the basket for a goaltending call.

"They really play with great effort, intensity and physicality," Turner said. "It's what we knew they would do."

The style had the Anteaters on their heels at times.

"The way they play affected our confidence in the first half," said Nelson, who scored 14 points. "It took us a little while to adjust. Once we loosened up, we got our swagger back."

Riverside led, 48-45, with seven minutes left. The Highlanders managed only one more field goal.

Davis, meanwhile, went to work. His jumper got Irvine started. Moments later, his layup gave the Anteaters a 49-48 lead. They never trailed again.

"We knew we had to bring it so it wasn't our last game," Davis said.

UC Santa Barbara 54, Cal Poly 50: Alan Williams scored 19 points to lead the Gauchos (19-12). Brian Bennett had 20 points for Cal Poly (13-16).

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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