ANAHEIM — This time the only storming onto the court was done by UC Irvine Coach Russell Turner, who ventured a few steps off the sideline to deliver critical words to one official following the Anteaters' 79-72 loss to top-seeded Long Beach State in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament on Thursday at Honda Center.
The last time the Anteaters faced the 49ers, the Anteaters' student rooters energetically cavorted on UCI's home floor to congratulate Turner's first UCI men's basketball team on what turned out to be its crowning victory in a 13-19 season.
Thursday was the Anteaters' third straight first-round exit in the conference tournament and terminated its third straight losing season, the previous two having helped end the 13-year run of former coach Pat Douglass.
Senior point guard Patrick Rembert was the only on-court remnant from the 2007-08 campaign, in which the 'Eaters' 18-16 campaign ended in the conference tournament title game, before once again failing to make the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance. In 34 seasons since becoming a Division I program, UCI has yet to dance. March continues to be Lack of History month for these 'Eaters.
Long Beach State (21-10) has a much more storied hoops history and, thanks to Coach Dan Monson and a junior trio that relies as much on togetherness as their ample talent, the 49ers resurgence continued Thursday.
But not without a scare.
"I thought it was a character win, because it certainly was not easy," said Monson, whose team has won 10 straight and took two of three hard-fought battles this season against No. 8-seeded UCI.
UCI led most of the first half, regained the lead midway through the second half and took a 63-62 advantage into the final moments.
But Casper Ware, the Conference Player of the Year, nailed a fall-away three-pointer with 3:04 left that put the regular-season conference champs up for good.
UCI battled within 70-68, 72-70 and 74-72, the last with 39 seconds left.
But though Turner had ordered a foul, UCI was late on the chase during a full-court press that was exploited for a transition layup that Larry Anderson turned into a three-point play with 30 ticks remaining.
UCI turned it over on its next possession and Anderson drained two foul shots with 23.3 seconds left to finalize the scoring. Long Beach made 25 of 33 foul shots. UCI connected on 17 of 19 from the line.
The fouls clearly cost the Anteaters, who at one point in the first half had four starters on the bench in foul trouble. Senior scoring leader Darren Moore, a second-team all-conference pick, fouled out in the final minute. He bowed out as a collegian with 10 points, nine rebounds, three assists, five turnovers and one steal in 27 minutes.
Senior Pavol Losonsky and sophomore Mike Wilder also fouled out for UCI, which collected 26 fouls, 11 more than the 49ers.
Junior forward T.J. Robinson shot 18 free throws, making 11, though it appeared he generated contact by jumping into defenders on a handful of those foul calls.
UCI junior Eric Wise, limited to 29 minutes due to fouls, led the 'Eaters with 23 points on nine-of-17 shooting from the field (52.9%). He was five for five from the foul line.
The rest of the Anteaters made 13 of 41 field-goal attempts (31.7%) and UCI finished seven for 23 from three-point range (30.4%).
Ware, who missed his first six field-goal tries, was seven of 18 for the game, including six for 12 from beyond the arc. He led Long Beach with 23 points.
His three-pointers provided the final nine points of the first half for the 49ers, who led, 30-29, at the break. He also made a 12-foot jumper in the lane with 48 seconds left to create a 74-70 cushion for the winners.
"I think its time to give these guys some credit," Monson said of his junior leaders. "They stay together and they make plays when they need to and they just survive and advance. So, we're back [for today's semifinals], when I didn't know if we were going to be there a half-hour ago."
Turner also praised Ware, Robinson and Anderson, who combined for 56 points (71% of the 49ers' offense).
"Those three guys have played together for three years," Turner said. "They count on each other and they trust each other and they clearly are a solid team. We haven't had that yet, as a team."
After its upset of Long Beach on Jan. 22 gave UCI a 10-10 record, the 'Eaters dropped nine of their final 12, with two of those three wins coming in double overtime at home.
"It hurts a lot," said Rembert, who had 19 points. Two of his three turnovers came on careless passes in the final two-plus minutes. "My freshman year we had some success, but the last three years have been tough."
Said Turner, "I'm disappointed we didn't have more success this year. We have to do a better job in all areas of our program. But I'm proud of my players. I think they gave a great effort.
"When we were 10-10 after beating Long Beach, I thought we really might catch some momentum and be able to grow as a program. But we didn't do that."
Big West Tournament
Long Beach State 79, UC Irvine 72
UCI – Wise 23, Losonsky 3, Rembert 19, Moore 10, Starring 4, Wilder 8, McNealy 3, Simek 2.
3-pt. goals – Rembert 3, Losonsky 1, Moore 1, McNealy 1, Wilder 1.
Fouled out – Moore, Losonsky, Wilder.
Technicals – None.
LB State – Robinson 15, Phelps 12, Ware 23, Anderson 18, Plater 7, Nevens 2, Dervisevic 2.
3-pt. goals – Ware 6, Plater 1, Anderson 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.