'Eaters upset 49ers

ANAHEIM — Undoubtedly this season, Coach Russell Turner has wondered where his UC Irvine men's basketball team would be without a senior nucleus that has been so vital in so many ways.

For most of the No. 4-seeded Anteaters' seesaw struggle with top-seeded Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament on Friday at Honda Center, Turner was faced with that very proposition.

With less than seven minutes to play and trailing the 49ers, 49-43, UCI senior guards Daman Starring and Mike Wilder were a combined two for 17 from the field. In addition, senior post Adam Folker was watching his fourth straight game from the sideline with an injury.

But Starring helped rescue what otherwise was a lackluster night for the senior catalysts, helping the Anteaters rally for a 67-60 victory that puts them on the verge of history.

The win propels UCI (20-15) into Saturday's championship game against No. 2-seeded Pacific. Saturday's winner claims the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, which would be a first for UCI, which has won eight of its last nine and is now 15-1 in games played in Orange County this season.

Starring had back-to-back assists in three-pointers by sophomore Travis Souza and Wilder that pulled UCI within 51-49 with 5:06 to play.

After a follow shot by Will Davis kept the deficit at two, Starring drew an offensive foul on Long Beach's subsequent possession. Then, with 3:41 left, he dribbled, drew a defender and dished to Alex Young for a three-pointer from the left corner that gave UCI a 54-53 advantage it would not relinquish.

Starring made a free throw and a driving left-handed layup on UCI's next two possessions to open a four-point advantage.  Finally, with UCI up, 61-57, Starring, whose seven points were just more than half his team-leading average of 13.2 per game, penetrated again, drawing the defense and setting up his assist to Davis for an exclamation dunk with 35 seconds left.

Starring and Young converted two free throws apiece in the final seconds to help UCI earn its fourth trip to the Big West Tournament final, its first since 2008. It's the Anteaters' first 20-win season since the 2002-03 team finished 20-9.

Young led the winners with 18 points and four assists, while Davis, a sophomore and the conference Defensive Player of the Year, had 14 points on six-of-eight shooting, with nine rebounds and three blocked shots.  Davis leads UCI in the tournament, scoring 13.5 per contest.

Junior Chris McNealy, assuming Folker's starting role, had 13 points and seven rebounds, six of which came on the offensive glass.

Starring, just two for 11 from the field and zero for five from three-point range, added a team-best seven assists and three steals to help UCI win the turnover battle, 12-7.

"My shot wasn't falling tonight," said Starring, who is now five for 19 from the field in the tournament, just two for nine from threedom. "I wasn't really hitting offensively, so the next best thing I could do was get my teammates open, so they could do what they had to do."

Turner jumped in to add further praise to Starring, who at age 24 is nicknamed Fossil by his teammates. "[The 49ers] were switching late in the game and they switched a big guy on him," Turner said. "Our team made a great read and [Starring] definitely made the right play by putting it on the floor and taking it by [the defender]. His layup [with 2:06 left to give UCI a 57-53 lead] was probably the biggest basket of the game. That's what a senior does."

 It was UCI's second straight win over Long Beach State, which won the conference regular-season crown the last three seasons, but will now hope for an NIT bid at 19-13. The 49ers eliminated UCI from the Big West Tournament the last two seasons.

"I'm really happy with my squad  right now and really excited for the opportunity we have [Saturday]," Turner said. "Tonight's game was close [eight ties and 10 lead changes] and we grinded it out with outstanding defense. I couldn't be more proud of the effort my team put forth. I told my team that [the 49ers] had the Player of the Year [James Innes] and the Coach of the Year [Dan Monson] and deservedly so. But tonight, we had the better team."


 Big West Conference Tournament semifinal

UC Irvine 67, Long Beach State 60

UCI – WIlder 5, McNealy 13, Davis 14, Young 18, Starring 7, Souza 6, Flowers 2, Ryan 2.

3-pt. goals – Young 2, Souza 2, McNealy 1, Wilder 1.

Fouled out – None.

Technicals – None.

LBSU – Innes 11, Freeland 15, Jennings 5, King 15, Caffey 14.

3-pt. goals – Ennis 3, Caffey 1, King 1.

Fouled out – Innes.

Technicals – None.

Halftime – UCI, 29-28.



Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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