Defense may win championships, but it’s not like it’s some great lure for hot prep basketball players. They don’t normally scour the country trying to find that great defensive school.
But defense is what UC Irvine absolutely specializes in and why the Anteaters will be back in the championship game for the Big West tournament on Saturday.
Irvine played another smothering defensive game Friday night, holding Long Beach State to 31.8% shooting on the way to a 62-57 victory over the 49ers in their semifinal at the Honda Center.
“We just defend,” said guard Jaron Martin. “That’s the attitude of our team — we defend first.”
Irvine blocked a season-high 10 shots, with forward Jonathan Galloway leading the effort with five blocks. Its defense held 49ers guard Justin Bibbins, who scored a career-high 27 points Thursday against Hawaii, to four-for-15 shooting.
Long Beach averaged 75.6 points per game during the Big West regular season but struggled to get its offense in gear against the Anteaters.
“They’ve been, all season, the best defensive team in the league,” said Long Beach Coach Dan Monson. “They defended us well.
“We’ve scored all year. That’s probably the best anybody has defended us.”
Irvine (21-13) opened up a nine-point lead early in the second half, but Long Beach (15-19) briefly found its range, going on a 10-2 run to take a four-point lead with 10 minutes to play.
But the Anteaters remained ever cool. Led by senior guards Luke Nelson and Martin, they locked down the defense and answered with a 9-0 run to take control.
“We’ve been a defensive team for the last four years,” said Irvine Coach Russell Turner. “That’s been our identity.”
Martin led the offense for Irvine with 18 points. Nelson, the conference player of the year, had an off-shooting night (five for 14) but hit a big three-pointer and then midrange jumper to ignite the Anteaters’ 9-0 run.
“The confidence I have in him as a winner can’t be measured,” Turner said.
Long Beach won the rebounding battle, 44-35, getting 15 rebounds from Temidayo Yussuf, but struggled to find an edge elsewhere. Bibbins finished as its leading scorer with 15 points.
Galloway added nine rebounds and eight points on four-for-five shooting, to go with his five blocks.
UC Davis 66, Cal State Fullerton 64 (OT): Aggies forward Chima Moneke put back a missed three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime as UC Davis escaped with the victory.
Brynton Lemar, who led No. 2 seed Davis (21-12) with 23 points, had scored all nine of the Aggies’ points in overtime before Moneke’s basket. Moneke finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Tre’ Coggins led Fullerton (17-14) with 22 points, overcoming a one-for-six start. Fullerton trailed by as many as nine early in the second half before finally starting to make shots. The Titans tied the score, 42-42, with 6:50 left in regulation.
The two teams played a brutal first half. The Aggies made only one of their first 11 shots and still managed to outshoot the Titans in the half (34.5% to 22.6%).
UC Irvine 62, Long Beach St. 57
UC Davis 66, CS Fullerton 64 (2 OT)
at Honda Center
No. 1 UC Irvine vs. UC Davis, 8:30 p.m.
UCSB 73, UC Davis 59
Long Beach State 61, CSUN 60
at Honda Center
No. 2 Long Beach State vs. No. 4 UC Santa Barbara, 4 p.m.