LONG BEACH — Despite being virtually without a front-line post player for most of the first half, the UC Irvine men's basketball team outplayed the best team in the Big West Conference well past intermission Saturday at the Walter Pyramid.
But the 15-point lead just more than eight minutes in and the 12-point advantage with 15:59 left, turned out to be fool's gold against a 49ers team that has figured out something the Anteaters, under first-year coach Russell Turner, are still struggling to get a collective handle on.
"We can play with anybody in this league, but playing with them and beating them are two different things," Turner said after his team (7-9, 1-2 in conference), made seven of its final 30 field-goal attempts to foil its upset bid against the hosts (9-8, 4-0).
"I've got character guys on my team and we fight," Turner said. "But we've got to do more than that to win. There are not a lot of teams in this league that we are flat-out better than, so we've got to play better than other teams to beat them. I thought we played better than Long Beach State in the first half, but we weren't able to do that to close out the game."
UCI, which shot 61.5% in the first half, including six of nine from three-point range, trailed for only 23 seconds in the opening 20 minutes.
After the 49ers overcame a 26-11 deficit to eventually claim a 35-33 advantage, a three-pointer by Darren Moore, who had 19 of his game-high 23 points before intermission, sparked a 13-3 UCI run to close out the first half and give the visitors a 46-38 edge.
Moore scored 16 of UCI's final 19 first-half points and finished the half six for six from the field and six of eight from the foul line.
"He as real good," Turner said of Moore, who made just one of five field-goal attempts after halftime. "It's not easy to back a really good half with another in college basketball, because the other team's defense becomes focused on you."
Limiting Moore was not the only halftime adjustment by 49ers Coach Dan Monson, who found a way to get 28 of his team's 46 points in the paint after the break.
With Long Beach forcing UCI's shooting woes and burning the lack of size and experience down low — outside of UCI junior Eric Wise, who played just nine minutes in the first half due to having three fouls, UCI went with four guards and either seniors Peter Simek (2.6 points per game) or walk-on Emil Kim (1.9 per contest) in the post — the 49ers turned a 56-44 deficit four minutes into the second half, into a 60-60 deadlock with 10:31 left.
UCI was without front-court players Pavol Losonsky (illness), Adam Folker (Achilles) and Maxime Chupin (eligibility).
UCI senior point guard Patrick Rembert (18 points with four assists and only one of the visitors' 11 turnovers) netted a 14-foot jumper to put UCI back on top, 62-60.
But a three-pointer by junior guard Casper Ware, who scored 16 of his 21 points in the final 20 minutes, ignited a 9-0 spurt that put the hosts in control for good.
Until freshman Chris McNealy (12 points to account for all of the 'Eaters' bench scoring) netted a three-pointer with two seconds left, UCI had produced just two field goals since 7:13 remained.
UCI went 8:37 with just one field goal in the first half.
"[Falling into scoring droughts] has kind of been the story of a few of our games this year," Turner said.
Wise, who was five for 14 from the field, finished with 14 points, a team-high eight rebounds and both of UCI's steals.
Moore added five rebounds and three assists, while Mike Wilder and Daman Starring combined for 11 points and 13 rebounds for the 'Eaters.
Larry Anderson scored 15 of his team-high 22 in the second half and he finished with eight rebounds, six assists and two steals.
Ware had six assists, while T.J. Robinson had 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Big West Conference
Long Beach State 86,
UC Irvine 78
UCI – Wise 14, Moore 23, Rembert 18, Starring 6, Wilder 5, McNealy 12.
3-pt. goals – McNealy 3, Moore 2, Rembert 1, Starring 1, Wilder 1.
Fouled out – Wilder.
Technicals – Wise 1.
LB St. – Phelps 13, Robinson 12, Anderson 22, Ware 21, Plater 8, Dervisevic 9, Wilson 1.
3-pt. goals – Ware 3, Plater 2, Anderson 1.
Technicals – Derisevic 1.
Halftime – UCI, 46-38.