The UC Irvine men’s basketball team (23-11,15-5) fell short of a comeback attempt in a closely contested match against the Cal State Fullerton Titans (19-12,12-6) 83-80 in the Big West Conference Championships semifinal on Friday, March 10.
Fullerton was led by junior guard Latrell Wrightsell Jr. with 22 points, while the Anteaters were led by junior guards Dawson Baker and DJ Davis, who scored 22 and 20 points, respectively.
Compared to Irvine’s quarterfinal win over Bakersfield, intensity jumped dramatically with both teams emitting high energy defensive pressure, forcing turnovers on both sides. Fullerton opened up the game with the first five points following a three pointer from Wrightsell and a putback by senior forward Vincent Lee which was quickly answered by a layup from UCI senior guard Pierre Crockrell II, cutting the deficit to 5-2.
Fullerton junior guard Max Jones made his presence known early, hitting a jumper to increase his point total to five in the first four minutes of the game, giving CSUF a 10-6 lead. CSUF followed up their strong start with five field goals in a row and the ‘Eaters found themselves down, 17-9
Senior guard Tory San Antonio gave Fullerton a spark, hitting his first three shots from downtown, giving them a 23-15 advantage. However, the ‘Eaters clawed their way back as redshirt senior forward JC Butler hit a three to decrease the deficit to five points, then connected on a transition layup from Crockrell to cut the lead to one, 23-22.
Both teams traded buckets until a flagrant one foul on UCI redshirt junior guard Justin Hohn shifted momentum to CSUF. After two free throws from San Antonio and a three pointer from senior guard Jalen Harris, Fullerton found themselves up six, 36-30. Still, the ‘Eaters fought back again with a three from Davis and a bucket and free throw from Baker, nodding up the contest at 36.
An and-one jumper from Wrightsell gave Fullerton a three point lead, but a huge Davis three at the halftime buzzer tied the game at 39 going into the break. Going into the second half, San Antonio led CSUF with 15 points and Davis led UCI with nine. Both teams shot with great precision, with UCI shooting 14-23 (61%) from the field and 6-10 (60%) from behind the three point line, and CSUF shooting 15-31 (48%) from the field and 6-11 (55%) from beyond the arc.
Fullerton opened up the second half strong, capitalizing on back-to-back UCI turnovers, going on an 8-0 run following a three pointer by Jones to put them ahead 51-46. Back-to-back buckets from Wrightsell gave Fullerton their largest lead of the night, 67-57, with 10 minutes remaining. Wrightsell came alive in the second half knocking down a huge three pointer to counter a Davis three with seven minutes left, putting CSUF back up nine, 73-64.
Yet the ‘Eaters refused to back down. Baker connected on two free throws and a huge-and-one bucket, firing up the UCI crowd and cutting the lead to four, 73-69. CSUF responded promptly with three free throws, as each foul gave them a one-plus-one opportunity with UCI in the bonus. With just under four minutes remaining, the ‘Eaters faced a seven point deficit, 76-69.
The ‘Eaters defense stepped up with clutch timing. They held Fullerton without a field goal for seven straight minutes to close out the game. A layup from redshirt sophomore forward Devin Tillis and two free throws from Baker gave the ‘Eaters hope, cutting the Fullerton lead to two, 76-74.
After two Fullerton free throws, a timely three from Davis cut the deficit to one, 78-77. A questionable foul call gave CSUF two more free throws, then Davis was fouled on a three point shot and hit all three free throws bringing the score to 81-80, with Fullerton still with the advantage. With time running out, UCI was forced to play the foul game and with two more Fullerton free throws, the score was 83-80 with 10 seconds left. The Anteaters final possession saw Davis launch a prayer from beyond the arc, only to come upshort.
Reflecting on the game, UCI head coach Russell Turner praised the way his team competed, and illustrated his disappointment for how things ended.
“My team, our guys are champions,” Turner said. “There’s huge disappointment when the stakes are as high as they are in this league … and we’re prepared for the type of battle we had tonight, we just weren’t fortunate enough to come out on top of it tonight.”
Turner also commended his players, especially Baker, for how hard they competed this season.
“I feel that disappointment deeply for my team, Dawson Baker, and all the other guys who came here tonight and fought really hard and got beat,” Turner said. “There’s no more clutch player than [Baker]. No harder worker than this guy.”
The ‘Eaters will await their matchup in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in the national selection show on Sunday, March 12.