NORTHRIDGE — One game into the Big West Conference men's basketball season, the buzz about UC Irvine has nothing to do with the Anteaters' tight new haircuts.
UCI, picked to finish last in the nine-team conference in the preseason poll, did little to disprove such a prediction in a 3-9 preseason that included just one win over a Division I program.
But there was little about UCI's performance Thursday that would point toward limiting optimism in conference play.
"I don't think my team in any way has lost belief because of our record," UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "A lot of people who follow us maybe ask some questions they probably should ask when you look at our record. But we're going to continue to fight and grind and hopefully improve as a team."
UCI (4-9, 1-0 in conference) had 13 assists on 13 field goals, including six three-pointers, and committed just five turnovers in the first half. The visitors led by as many as 22 and had a 43-24 advantage at the break.
CSUN (3-8, 0-1) turned up its intensity in the second half as the Matadors used an 11-0 run that coincided with a UCI scoreless streak of nearly eight minutes to trim the deficit to 48-38. Then, the hosts heated up from three-point range to close to within 55-52 with 6:26 remaining.
But the 'Eaters, who were 0-8 away from home this year coming in, answered with a 7-0 flurry to regain control. UCI then made eight straight foul shots in a one-minute span that ended with 35 seconds left to preserve the victory.
Junior Mike Wilder fed junior Aaron Folker for a layin to start the 7-0 burst, which was then extended by one of Flowers' four three-pointers. Flowers, in only his fourth start since taking over for injured freshman Aaron Wright, made four of five from three-point range to help his team shoot 42.1% from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Chris McNealy capped the 7-0 run with a driving reverse layup that typified the kind of aggressiveness Turner wanted from his team when adversity surfaced.
"When they ramped the pressure up in the second half, I don't feel like we were as aggressive," Turner said. " We talk as a team about staying in attack mode, even when we are ahead. I told guys at halftime that I'd rather us play like we're down 20, instead of like we were ahead at all."
Flowers, whose four three-pointers were also a career-high, had three assists and two turnovers in 31 minutes and topped four Anteaters who scored in double figures.
Wilder had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists, while Folker had 10 points and nine boards and Starring had 10 points, all in the first half.
McNealy had a team-high six assists as UCI finished with 18 assists and 16 turnovers.
"We played unbelievable that first half," Turner said. "But [the Matadors] fought back and made it a one-possession game. Then, we rose up and made the plays to win."
Flowers, who had a career-high nine assists in a Dec. 22 home win over Hope International, said it felt great to open conference play so strongly.
"We're a new team," Flowers said. "Everything is new about us, down to the way we look [haircuts]."
Flowers said he was perhaps the only player who did not take anything off the top and he might not want to change anything heading into Monday's showdown with conference favorite Long Beach State (at UCI at 7 p.m.).
"It's not like we beat the best team in the conference," Turner said. "But we may have that team up next and I'm excited for the opportunity."
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 71, Cal State Northridge 62
UCI – Wilder 12, Folker 10, Flowers 21, Starring 10, McNealy 7, Davis 6, Best 5.
3-pt. goals – Flowers 4, Starring 2, Wilder 1, Best 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CSUN – Hicks 17, Lizarraga 4, Quinn 15, Greene 14, McGhee 6, Maxwell 2, Jiles 2, Guei 2.
3-pt. goals – Greene 4, Quinn 3, McGhee 2.
Fouled out – Eteuati.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – 43-24, UCI.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times