IRVINE — There can come a point when the prevalence of losing gives a team nothing to lose. UC Irvine senior guard Darren Moore said Coach Russell Turner told his Anteaters as much heading into Saturday's Big West Conference home game against UC Santa Barbara.
"Coach Turner told us from the jump, to come out here and play as hard as we can," Moore said after the Anteaters procured a 66-63 win to snap a five-game losing streak, the team's longest of the season. "He didn't want us to worry about anything — the standings, the TV [regional telecast on Fox Sports West], anything. He just wanted us to come out and play hard. We didn't have anything to lose, so why not?"
The 'Eaters (11-15, 4-8 in conference) used an attacking offense, a gimmick defense, and noteworthy performances by Moore and senior point guard Patrick Rembert to come away with their first victory in 21 days in front of 3,354 at the Bren Events Center. UCI moves one game ahead of last-place UC Davis.
UCSB, which returned five starters from the team that shared last season's regular-season Big West crown, fell to 13-10, 6-6. But not without a dramatic final possession in which UCI supporters saw the possibility of overtime pass before their eyes as Gauchos stars Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally missed three-point attempts that would have knotted things.
It was a triangle-and-two defense that restricted opportunities for Johnson, last year's Big West Player of the Year, as well as Nunnally. The duo had combined for 107 of their team's 152 points in their two previous games, with Johnson producing 70 in back-to-back wins against UC Riverside (Thursday) and UC Davis.
Johnson needed 16 field-goal attempts to get 18 points Saturday, while Nunnally finished with eight points.
"We played triangle-and-two almost the whole game," Turner said of his ploy to try to contain Johnson and Nunnally, who were a combined nine for 24 from the field to mirror the Gauchos' shooting success for the game (37.5%). "We played a couple possessions of two-three zone and I think we only went man-to-man on that last [possession], when they needed a three."
In a game with 16 lead changes and nine ties, UCSB was up, 48-45, until a three-point play by Rembert knotted the game with 7:19 left and sparked an 11-0 UCI surge that created a 56-48 edge with four minutes left.
Senior Pavol Losonsky (13 points with three three-pointers) and sophomore Mike Wilder (nine points, six boards and four assists) netted three-pointers during the spurt, which put UCI ahead for good. UCI made half of its 16 three-point tries on the night.
UCI upped the advantage to 62-52 after another Rembert three-point play with 2:04 remaining. The play typified the Anteaters' determination to get to the rim, as five players lined the perimeter, freeing up the lane for frequent forays to either finish or dish for open perimeter shots.
But the Gauchos kept pumping in three-pointers to pull within three with 37 ticks remaining.
Rembert, who had nine assists and nine rebounds in arguably the most productive game of his career, missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation for the second time within 18 seconds with 31 seconds left, giving UCSB a chance to tie.
After UCI twice knocked the ball out of bounds, the latter with 12.2 seconds left, Nunnally forced a three-point try from the left wing that barely grazed the front of the rim. But Johnson rebounded, dribbled beyond the three-point arc and shot with a defender draped on him. The ball bounced off the rim and was tipped toward midcourt by Wilder, allowing the buzzer to sound and a flood of UCI students to rush onto the court.
"When you lose five in a row and you start hearing everything that goes with that, it's not easy to remain prideful and confident," Turner said. "But tonight we were a prideful and confident team. They're all going to be close games from here on out, but I do know my guys believe they can win and that's the most important thing."
Moore, who had nine rebounds and was eight for 13 from the field, including three for four from beyond the arc, echoed that belief.
"There's still room; there's room left for us to improve," Moore said.
Turner said the improvement that most helped end the losing streak was team defense.
"The key to the game was preventing Santa Barbara from getting points in the paint [just 10, compared to 23 for the 'Eaters]," Turner said. "We were committed to [defending the paint] earlier in the year, but somehow we lost our way. Tonight, we were more committed to that and we did it as a team."
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 66, UC Santa Barbara 63
UCSB – Johnson 18, Nunnally 8, Pastorek 7, Joyner 12, Weiner 8, Boswell 5, Brew 3, Serna 2.
3-pt. goals – Joyner 4, Johnson 2, Weiner 2, Nunnally 2, Boswell 1, Brew 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Losonsky 13, Moore 21, Rembert 16, Wilder 9, Starring 0, Strings 5, Simek 2.
3-pt. goals – Losonsky 3, Moore 3, Wilder 1, Strings 1.
Fouled out – None.
Halftime – 30-30.