They met in Fullerton first and then Irvine, and then, Saturday night, they met in the middle.
In Anaheim. At Honda Center. In the finale of the Big West tournament.
Turns out it didn’t matter where the games started because each finished in the same place: with UC Irvine on top.
The Anteaters defeated Cal State Fullerton 92-64 with a blitz from the opening tip led by junior guard Max Hazzard.
With the victory, Irvine (30-5) advances to the NCAA tournament for the second time in school history. The 2014-15 Anteaters were seeded 13th and sent to Seattle, where they lost their first game to Louisville 57-55.
The win also avenged their loss in the Big West final a year ago to the Titans (16-17), who were trying to make consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
Hazzard delivered the early punches and freshman teammate Collin Welp the final knockout.
Hazzard had 15 of his 23 points in the first half and Welp 12 of his 23 in the opening 10 minutes of the second.
Fullerton’s Khalil Ahmad, who scored 60 points total in his first two tournament games, missed eight shots to start Saturday and finished with six points.
Hazzard began by making three three-pointers in the game’s first four minutes. He added a driving layup before finally missing another three-point try.
The Anteaters made 10 of their first 13 shots overall and, after barely 10 minutes, had ballooned the difference to 30-12. The Titans closed to within 33-22 on a Kyle Allman Jr. three-pointer 4:46 before halftime.
But Irvine reasserted itself to close on a 9-2 run to restore the 18-point edge — 42-24 — after 20 minutes.
From there, the Anteaters continued to pour it on, burying Fullerton with an overwhelming display of offensive efficiency.
These two schools are conference rivals that share Orange County and equal measures of respect and distaste for one another.
The Anteaters won both previous meetings against the Titans this year, 63-46 in January and 60-53 nearly a month later.
At that point, the schools had played 110 times in men’s basketball. The record for each was the same: 55-55.
Two institutions that sit roughly 23 miles apart couldn’t have been any closer.
In the Big West tournament, however, Fullerton had carved out a sizable gap. The Titans entered Saturday 7-2 against Irvine when the stakes were one-and-done.
In 2018, they knocked off the third-seeded Anteaters as the No. 4 seed 71-55 in a title game Irvine led only once after the first three minutes.
Both these programs arrived at Honda Center riding upward trends established over the past few seasons.
Irvine has claimed the Big West’s regular-season title four times in six years, reached three consecutive tournament finals now and won at least 20 games in six of the past seven seasons for coach Russell Turner.
The Titans have won 10 Big West games in each of the past three years after winning 10 total in coach Dedrique Taylor’s first three seasons at the school.