IRVINE — Without a home victory in three previous Big West Conference games this season and only two wins over Division I programs in the Bren Events Center, the UC Irvine student rooting section can be forgiven for lacking the inspiration and, perhaps, the opportunity to storm the court following Saturday's 65-57 triumph over conference rival UC Riverside.
So, after earning their first Big West Conference home win in a little more than 11 months, Anteaters players took it upon themselves to storm the crowd.
UCI players, in single file, ran around in the isle between the stands and the court after the final buzzer to accept and deliver congratulations to some of the season-high 4,382 homecoming crowd.
"That's just us," junior point guard Derick Flowers said of the impromptu interactive celebration that he helped create by scoring a team-high 17 points and draining seven of eight three-throw attempts in the final 62 seconds. "We're the clowns of the school. We like to have fun."
Fun indeed for UCI, which trailed, 51-47, with 7:42 left, then outscored the Highlanders, 18-6, the rest of the way to improve to 8-13, 4-4 in the Big West.
Flowers was one of several heroes for the 'Eaters who overcame 29.6% shooting in the second half — including one of 12 from three-point range for 8.3% — by coming up big at the foul line (20 for 26) and getting down and dirty on defense and the boards to end a four-game losing streak against UCR (10-11, 4-4).
"We were far from playing a clean game, but we played well enough to win," Turner said. "I'm really proud of the way we guarded and we worked really hard on the boards [posting a 35-30 advantage].
"We haven't played particularly well [at home] in conference," Turner said. "We've played half-games but not a full one. If you look at what happened in this game, we were down by four with about eight minutes left. Many of the plays we made coming down the stretch were hustle and energy plays that the crowd helps you with. Part of having a good program is having a good environment in the gym and our students are really vital for that."
Also vital, Turner said, was his team's trapping, full-court pressure, which helped create a 22-12 advantage in points off turnovers. Riverside committed 19 turnovers, three more than the hosts.
Junior Adam Folker, who was scoreless with two rebounds in the first half, after which UCI led, 32-29, had nine points and seven rebounds after intermission. Folker had his team's only two field goals in the final 4:15 on a put-back and a layup, the latter with 1:33 left after Chris McNealy penetrated and dished, that gave UCI the lead for good, 56-55.
Flowers netted 13 points in the final 20 minutes and was five for nine from the field. The other UCI starters were a combined nine for 29 from the field (31%).
Junior Mike Wilder had 10 first-half points to help create the lead. He was three for three from three-point range before the break, but did not hit any of his four three-point tries in the final 20 minutes and was zero for five from the field in the second half. He did finish with a team-best five assists.
Junior guard Daman Starring had four points, but chipped in three steals. And his overplaying man-to-man defense on Highlanders' star Phil Martin (19 points and eight rebounds) helped produce a critical turnover.
With UCR trailing, 56-55, Highlanders' point guard Robert Smith, in an attempt to pass to Martin who was being denied by Starring, threw a pass out of bounds. Martin leaped over the baseline to try to save the ball back into the court, but Flowers intercepted and was fouled. Flowers made the first of two double-bonus foul shots and Folker snagged the rebound on the second miss, setting up a possession that ended with two Flowers free throws that made it 59-55.
UCR closed to within two with a layup with 42 seconds left, but those were its final points.
Riverside shot just eight foul shots, making six, and the Highlanders made 13 of 26 second-half field-goal tries to add drama to a game that featured four lead changes and seven ties.
Freshmen reserves Will Davis and Mike Best each had seven points for UCI, which posted an 18-10 advantage in bench scoring. UCI's five substitutes also combined to make only one turnover. Davis added eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
"Our press was more effective than I thought it would be," Turner said. "We had a lot of guys make plays off of that and I thought that was probably the difference in the game."
UCI plays the final two of five straight home games against UC Davis (Thursday at 7:30 p.m.) and Saturday against Pacific (7 p.m.).
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 65, UC Riverside 57
UCR – Bradshaw 15, Shearry 2, Martin 19, Nitoto 6, Smith 5, Berry 6, Burke 3, Chavarria 1.
3-pt. goals – Nitoto 2, Martin 2, Smith 1.
Fouled out – Smith.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Wilder 10, Folker 9, Flowers 17, McNealy 7, Starring 4, Davis 7, Best 7, Souza 2, Woods 2.
3-pt. goals – Wilder 3, McNealy 1, Best 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.