FULLERTON — Perhaps the hamstring injury that sidelined Eric Wise Thursday is cruelly symbolic for the UC Irvine men's basketball team.
The absence of the junior standout, who had five double-doubles in his previous six games, including a career-high 34 points to go with 12 rebounds in Saturday's double-overtime road loss, is just the latest setback to leave the Anteaters hamstrung this season.
In Thursday's 80-74 Big West Conference loss at Cal State Fullerton, Wise's inside presence was missed on both ends of the floor, as the Titans (9-14, 5-5 in conference) collected seven of their final 10 field goals on put-backs or layups. Included in that number was a three-point play after a missed free throw with 33 seconds left that virtually sealed the Anteaters' fate.
The loss drops UCI (10-13, 3-6) into a three-way tie for last place in the nine-team conference.
But yet another scoring lull — a span of nearly 12 minutes in the first half in which UCI converted only two field goals and scored six points — was an all-too-familiar shortcoming for the visitors, who have lost three straight as they travel to Cal State Northridge on Saturday.
During the drought, Fullerton turned a 14-11 deficit into a 14-point lead.
UCI Coach Russ Turner also addressed what he said was a lack of enthusiasm in the first 20 minutes, that allowed the Titans to snap a two-game losing streak.
"We dug ourselves too big a hole in the first half," Turner said after the Titans created a 38-28 edge at intermission. "I feel like we didn't have the appropriate level of play in the first half. We were too passive offensively. We turned it over too easily. And, defensively, it's like we weren't out there."
Senior Darren Moore and sophomore Mike Wilder helped the Anteaters rally in the second half. UCI pulled even at 63-63 on a Wilder three-pointer with 6:20 remaining.
But Fullerton responded with a 7-0 run and withstood another late UCI challenge that included a brief chance to seize the lead before Orane Chin's follow shot on the missed front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation.
Chin snatched the carom off the front of the rim over the back of Wilder and converted the layin while being fouled. His subsequent free throw put the hosts up, 77-72, with 33 seconds left.
"That was a key play," Turner said. "We have two guys there and they have one, and their guy got it. [Jer'Vaughn Johnson] missed the free throw so badly, it was a quick bounce. That was a factor, but I didn't think we were physical enough in our block-off and our pinch in that situation. And that cost us."
Moore finished with 22 points and Wilder added 20.
Senior Patrick Rembert netted four three-pointers on his way to 16 points for UCI, which shot 39.3% for the game, while allowing Fullerton to shoot 52.9% from the field (27 for 51). It's the first time a Big West foe has topped 50% against UCI this season.
The Titans' three front-court starters were a combined 16 for 24 from the field (66.7%) and produced 25 of the hosts' 35 rebounds. Fullerton's 24 points in the paint were eight more than UCI produced inside.
Senior Pavol Losonsky, who started in place of Wise, had two points, one rebound and two turnovers in 17 minutes Chin had 15 points and 12 rebounds to pace the winners, who received 19 points off the bench from freshman Isiah Umipig and had five double-figure scorers.
Turner refused to cite the loss of Wise as the key. UCI topped Fullerton, 85-78, at home on Jan. 5 in a game that the Titans were without 6-6, 230-pound junior Andre Hardy, who had been suspended for fighting.
Big West Conference
Cal State Fullerton 80, UC Irvine 74
UCI – Losonsky 2, Moore 22 Wilder 20, Rembert 16, Starring 5, Kim 4, McNealy 3, Simek 2.
3-pt. goals – Rembert 4, Wilder 3, Moore 2, McNealy 1, Starring 1.
CSF – Chin 15, Johnson 14, Hardy 12, Webster 13, Peltier 5, Umipig 19, Brown 2.
3-pt. goals – Umipig 5, Webster 1, Peltier 1, Chin 1.
Halftime – CSF, 38-28.