IRVINE — Sometimes having an edge can help a team bridge the perceived gap between desperation and necessity.
The result was an 85-78 Big West win over visiting Cal State Fullerton that evened the Anteaters' conference record and halted a four-game losing streak.
Heading into a four-game road swing that begins Saturday at conference-leading Long Beach State, a second consecutive home loss would have been devastating for first-year coach Russell Turner's squad.
"I felt it," Turner said of the extra pregame intensity after his team fell to visiting UC Riverside in the conference opener Dec. 28, "and I imagine our guys did. That's a difficult thing as a coach. You want your team on that edge, but not over it. And I'd rather be over it than not quite to it, I guess. So, we've got to figure that out for ourselves."
UCI (7-8, 1-1 in conference) figured out a way to harass the Titans (5-10, 1-2) into committing a season-worst 24 turnovers. Fullerton had just three turnovers in its home win over Pacific Thursday and had averaged just more than nine turnovers in its previous four games.
The Anteaters' defensive intensity produced a season-best 15 steals and helped them post a 10-0 advantage in fast-break points.
The strong defense, against which the Titans had 15 first-half turnovers, five on their first five possessions, also allowed UCI to overcome a shooting and rebounding disadvantage.
Sophomore Mike Wilder, starting for senior Pavol Losonsky, who missed the game due to illness, and senior Patrick Rembert, led five UCI scorers in double figures.
Wilder, whose three-pointer with 54 seconds left created a 77-70 lead, finished with 17 points, one shy of his career high. He was five of eight from the field and three of five from three-point range, while chipping in four rebounds, two steals and one assist.
Rembert, who had been shooting 26.2% from the field in his four previous games (11 for 42), did not miss a shot in the opening half and finished with 20 points, one shy of his career high. Rembert, who was five of eight from the field and eight of nine from the foul line, led the winners with five assists and five steals, while committing just four turnovers.
"The story of the game was Mike Wilder," Turner said. "He forced them into a lot of difficult plays just by being in the right place and being strong. He made big shots and he played unselfishly.
"[Rembert] bounced back obviously, after having been struggling," Turner said. "I thought he dictated the game to their point guard, Perry Webster, who is a good player."
Webster, who came in averaging nearly nine points and six assists, had two points, three assists and four turnovers.
UCI junior Derrick Strings had 11 points in 13 minutes off the bench, netting four of six field-goal tries, including half of his four shots from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Daman Starring had 11 points and three steals, while senior Darren Moore had 10 points, a team-high five rebounds, two steals and two assists.
Junior Eric Wise, who missed 16 minutes of the first half after picking up two quick fouls, finished with six points and three rebounds in 20 minutes.
Fullerton, playing without 6-froot-6 scoring leader Andre Hardy (15.7 points per game), who served a one-game suspension for fighting, rallied from a 40-37 halftime deficit to take a 47-43 lead with 17:54.
But UCI answered with a 9-2 run that turned into a 16-3 spurt, as the Titans went 8:15 without a field goal.
I thought we had a really ragged game in some ways, but that happens when you are maybe over-stimulated," Turner said. "But we won the tough battles for loose balls and I thought that was the difference in the game."
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 85, Cal State Fullerton 78
CSF – Johnson 14, Chin 10, Peltier 23, Brown 6, Webster 2, Umipig 19, Williams 2, Jurich 2.
3-pt. goals – Peltier 4, Umipig 1.
Fouled out – Webster, Brown.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Wise 6, Rembert 20, Moore 10, Wilder 17, Starring 11, Strings 11, Flowers 4, Kim 2, Simek 2, McNealy 2 .
3-pt. goals – Wilder 3, Strings 2, Starring 2, Rembert 2.
Fouled out – Moore.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 40-37.