SAN LUIS OBISPO — Another close game, one might say, slipped through the hands of the UC Irvine men's basketball team in a 72-67 Big West Conference loss at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Saturday.
But UCI Coach Russell Turner was willing to concede it may not have slipped, but was rather yanked from the grasp of his Anteaters, who have seemingly found a way to come up a couple plays short in close contests this season.
UCI (7-9, 1-2 in conference) is now 0-6 in games decided by six or fewer points, including a pair of galling setbacks the last three days along the Central Coast. Three of those losses have come in overtime and all were away from home.
Against Cal Poly (7-6, 3-0), UCI overcame a somewhat tentative opening half that ended with an 11-point deficit, to seize a 48-42 lead with 13:01 left in the game.
Senior post Adam Folker and freshman point guard Alex Young, both of whom were scoreless in a first half, scored 16 and 14 points, respectively to spark a strong second-half comeback.
Young had 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers, and Folker had eight points during the 'Eaters' 20-4 run early in the second half to help them climb into control.
But clutch shooting from three-point range and the foul line helped the Mustangs close out their third straight conference conquest.
"We played a good second half," said Turner, who was clearly disturbed by his team's lack of physical presence that helped create 10 first-half turnovers. "We played a good first half against Santa Barbara [UCI led, 37-32 at intermission but lost, 74-71 on Thursday] and a good second half against Cal Poly [outscoring the Mustangs 42-36 and making 16 of 28 field-goal tries after the break (57.1%)]. A lot of games are decided by a play or two here or there and decided by toughness."
Cal Poly trumped the Anteaters in the toughness department, which was most obvious on a handful of possessions on which the hosts simply snatched the ball from UCI players.
"I was most disappointed by the fact that they just went and took it out of our hands," Turner said. "I told our guys at halftime that we need to lift nine times a week if we are so physically weak that they can just take it from us. I think that we need to get physically stronger. That's a clear weakness in our program."
Cal Poly committed eight of the 12 turnovers after halftime, as UCI upped its intensity on both ends of the floor.
The Anteaters made 10 of their first 11 field-goal tries after the break.
But Cal Poly, led by 6-foot-7 junior Chris Eversley's 24 points and six rebounds, and senior reserve Chris O'Brien's career-high-tying 16 points, asserted its will down the stretch.
Back-to-back three-pointers by senior Dylan Royer gave Cal Poly a 57-56 edge with 5:51 left, before UCI sophomore Travis Souza drained a three-pointer 33 seconds later to put the 'Eaters on top, 59-57.
Young, who had a career-high 18 points at UCSB, sank a layup with 3:21 left to knot the score at 63-63, and junior Chris McNealy netted a pair of free throws to put UCI up with 2:29 left.
But after an Eversley layin, O'Brien converted a three-point play with a determined drive with 1:14 left to give the hosts a 68-65 cushion.
Folker followed with a layup and Young stole the ensuing inbounds pass to give UCI a shot with 58 seconds left. After a timeout, Mike Wilder stumbled over a defender with the shot clock running down and was called for traveling.
Eversley missed the front end of a one-and-one situation one second later, but Young missed a three-point try form the left corner with 17 seconds left.
After two Eversley free throws, Daman Starring missed a three-point attempt from the top of the key with seven seconds left that would have tied it.
UCI finished shooting 54.2% from the field, but lost the rebounding (23-20) and turnover battles (14-11). UCI was nine for 14 from the foul line, while the Mustangs netted 21 of 25 free-throw attempts.
Big West Conference
Cal Poly SLO 72, UC Irvine 67
UCI – Davis 6, Wilder 3, Folker 16, Starring 8, Young 14, McNealy 11, Clifford 6, Souza 3.
3-pt. goals – Young 2, Starring 1, Wilder 1, McNealy 1, Souza.
Fouled out – Folker.
Technicals – None.
CPSLO – Eversley 24, Bennett 8, Johnson 9, Royer 9, Odister 0, O'Brien 16, Morgan 5, Gordon 1.
3-pt. goals – Royer 3, O'Brien 2, Morgan 1, Johnson 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – CPSLO, 36-25.