UC Irvine senior guard Jerome Lee went out in style Monday night.
Playing his final game in Crawford Hall, Lee scored a career-high 27 points, 21 of them coming on three-point shots, to lead the Anteaters to an 84-76 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. win over UC Santa Barbara.
Prior to tipoff, there was a brief ceremony in which Lee, flanked by his parents at midcourt, received a standing ovation from the 1,257 fans in attendance. That was just the incentive for the 6-foot-1 guard.
“I thought (the pregame ceremony) was really neat,” said Lee, who made 7 of 9 shots from the three-point range to keep the Anteaters ahead throughout the second half.
“It really got me pumped up. The fans have done a lot for me, and I wanted to do something for them. They (the Gauchos) left me open and I could feel it tonight.”
The win improves Irvine’s PCAA record to 8-8 (13-14 overall) and moves the Anteaters into a three-way tie for fourth place with Utah State and San Jose State.
That may not seem like much, but Irvine’s victory may be very big come PCAA tournament time March 7-9.
If Irvine, which closes the season at Nevada Las Vegas and Fullerton, can finish in fourth, fifth or sixth place, it will not have to face the conference-leading Rebels or second-place Fresno State in the first round.
Irvine trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half Monday night but made up the difference by holding the Gauchos scoreless for more than four minutes.
Richard Townsend’s three-point shot and jumper from the top of the key gave Santa Barbara a 27-17 lead with eight minutes remaining in the half, but the Anteaters came back behind Lee’s three-pointer and two jumpers by Johnny Rogers to cut the lead to three, 27-24. Rogers finished with 26 points.
Townsend finally broke the Gauchos’ spell with a free throw, but Irvine’s Troy Carmon and Tod Murphy (who added 19 points) each scored to tie it, 28-28.
Santa Barbara’s 6-7 forward Khris Fortson dominated the early part of the game, as he repeatedly beat Rogers inside for eight points and entertained the UCI fans with his own slam-dunk show.
First, it was a conventional two-hander, then a one-hander, and he concluded with a two-hand, behind-the-head slam to give the Gauchos an early 10-8 lead. Three trips down the floor, three dunks.
Impressive, indeed, but unfortunately for Santa Barbara, it was curtains for Fortson, who didn’t score for the rest of the half. He came on very strong in the second half, though, and finished with a team-high 28 points.