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Big West men’s basketball tournament semifinals: UC Irvine extends winning streak to 15 games

Long Beach State guard Deishuan Booker, center, shoots between UC Irvine guard Robert Cartwright, le
Long Beach State guard Deishuan Booker, center, shoots between UC Irvine guard Robert Cartwright, left, and forward Tommy Rutherford during the first half at the Big West men’s tournament in Anaheim on Friday.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

He already has a degree from Stanford, making his performance Friday his most impressive postgraduate work yet.

Robert Cartwright scored 16 of his team-high 17 points in the second half, repeatedly slashing through Long Beach State’s defense to lift UC Irvine to a 75-67 victory in the Big West semifinals.

“My job is to try to do whatever I can to help my team win,” the graduate transfer said. “Today, it was attacking the basket and trying to bring my team some energy. I thought I did a pretty job of that in the second half.”

The Anteaters (29-5) extended their school-record winning streak to 15 and became the first team representing the conference to win as many as 29 games in a season since former Big West member Nevada Las Vegas went 34-1 in 1990-91.

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Irvine will play in the final Saturday night against Cal State Fullerton, a 64-58 winner over UC Santa Barbara in the other semifinal.

Irvine trailed the 49ers (15-19) for much of the game at Honda Center until going on an 11-0 run capped by an Evan Leonard three-pointer with 5:25 to go.

That basket made it 59-51, and Irvine held off the 49ers the rest of the way by refusing to succumb to the 49ers’ pressing defense.

“You have to be able to be consistent,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “We knew they were just going to keep grinding, keep defending and keep doing until they broke us. And it took them 34 minutes to do it.”

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The victory puts the Anteaters in the conference title game for the third consecutive season and eighth time overall. The school has won only one of those appearances, in 2015.

“Media folks and others like to talk about stuff from the past,” coach Russell Turner said. “I think this team has been outstanding in focusing in on what’s right in front of us. And that’s what we’re going to do again.

“This team is better than we’ve been in those last two years.”

Irvine’s most recent loss had come at home against the 49ers, who also played the Anteaters tough in the schools’ other meeting.

In mid-January, Long Beach State pulled away in the second half for an 80-70 victory, the Anteaters’ lone Big West loss of the season.

Just over two weeks later, Irvine avenged that defeat by beating the 49ers 82-80 on a last-second basket by Tommy Rutherford.

At that point, Long Beach State was on its way to losing eight of nine and tumbling in the conference standings.

But the 49ers recovered in time to win five in a row to finish the regular season.

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“I’m not sure that they’re maybe better than us, but they’re just so much more consistent than we are,” Monson said.

After a rough start shooting, Irvine made 20 of 33 field goal attempts in the second half. Many of those shots came in the lane, where the Anteaters had a 50-22 edge.

Max Hazzard had 14 points for Irvine and Leonard added 13. Deishuan Booker led Long Beach State with 21.

“The way I look at this tournament is I don’t want to have any regrets,” Cartwright said. “I know my teammates feel the same.”

Cal State Fullerton 64, UC Santa Barbara 58: Senior guard Khalil Ahmad scored 28 points as the Titans (16-16) kept alive their bid to repeat as conference tournament champions.

The Fullerton-Irvine pairing Saturday will be a repeat of the 2018 Big West title game, won by the Titans.

Fullerton trailed 54-47 with 6:28 to go but finished the game on a 17-4 run. Kyle Allman Jr. added 12 points.

UC Santa Barbara most recently appeared in the finals in 2012, when the school lost to Long Beach State. The Gauchos (22-10) were led by Max Heidegger and Amadou Sow with 14 points each.

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jeff.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffMillerLAT


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