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UC Irvine MBB Falls 83-79 in the Semifinal of Big West Tournament Against Long Beach State 

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The UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team (24-9, 17-3) fell in the 2024 Hercules Tires Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinals to Long Beach State (20-14, 10-10) at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nev. on Friday, March 15. UCI came into the tournament as the number one overall seed after clinching the Big West regular season championship. 

It was a battle between the conference’s best defense and offense. UCI held opponents to just 67.3 points per game, while Long Beach scored 77.7 points per game. 

UCI redshirt junior forward Devin Tillis got the party started for the Anteaters, making the first two buckets. The first score came from a post hook, assisted by fifth-year guard Pierre CrockrelI, the team leader in assists. The second also came from the paint, this time courtesy of a backdoor cut assisted by redshirt senior guard Justin Hohn.

The Beach answered back, with an and-one bucket from junior forward Lassina Traore. Senior guard Marcus Tsohonis, who leads Long Beach in points per game with 17.6, made two threes to give the Beach their first lead of the night, 8-6. 

The ‘Eaters experienced a cold spell, missing six straight shots from the field. Freshman guard Derin Saran, who usually provides a big spark off the bench, checked in and started 0-3 from the field. 

Crockrell II ended the drought with a pump fake to get his defender into the air, which gave him the separation to sink his shot. Freshman forward Carter Welling got into early foul trouble, picking up his second foul five minutes into the game. Long Beach State junior guard Jadon Jones knocked down a three, extending their lead to 20-12. 

The game did not take long to get scrappy and feisty as a hard-fought stretch of two minutes went by without any scoring. With tough defense being played in the interior by both sides, Hohn broke the drought with two straight buckets, the latter courtesy of a free layup due to a slick assist from junior center Bent Leuchten. After Hohn’s efforts, the lead was cut to 16-22. 

The lead got stretched to 10 points in the first half, with Long Beach senior forward Amari Stroud knocking down a tough jumper over his defender. The feistiness of the game led to a technical foul called on Long Beach sophomore guard AJ George. 

Hohn made both free throws, leading to a turnaround for the ‘Eaters, who scored five points in just 20 seconds. George then made up for his mistake, scoring five straight points on his own to get the lead back up to 10.

Crockrell II then decided to take matters into his own hands. Due to the congestion in the paint, his pull-up mid-range jumpers proved successful, with the point guard going 7-11 from the field in the first half. A string of Crockrell jumpers cut the lead once again to five at 26-31.

The ‘Eaters struggled to cut more into the lead for the rest of the half, as another couple of jumpers fell for Crockrell II, who led UCI with 13 points at the half. A stinging last-second dunk at the buzzer from Stroud had the Beach leading the Anteaters into the half, 47-38.

UC Irvine responded strongly after the halftime whistle with a 6-0 run. Leuchten and Hohn made buckets while getting fouled, but both failed to capitalize on their free throws. Lassina Traore halted the ‘Eaters momentum with a crucial offensive rebound and kick out to Tsohonis for a three to make the lead 50-44. This lead, however, evaporated quickly due to buckets from senior guard Andre Henry, Tillis, and Leuchten attacking the paint. A Henry three-pointer finally tied the game up at 55 after UCI trailed for the majority of the game. 

Long Beach responded with tough buckets matched with even tougher defense on the other end. Junior forward Aboubacar Traore affected the game in a major way in the second half. He contributed with a bucket, a steal and a fastbreak assist to extend the lead back toward the Beach’s way up by six. Saran made his mark on the game with two straight buckets, one coming off his offensive rebound to sway the lead back the ‘Eaters way. The lead came from staunch defense, holding the Beach scoreless for four minutes.

The lead kept switching hands from this point on, with Jones making crucial bucket after bucket for Long Beach. The deciding factor of the game was the free-throw line. Aboubacar Traore was a highlight all night with his consistency, going 12-13 from the charity stripe. UCI shot a poor 10-19 from the line, while Long Beach went 22-25 from the stripe. 

After being all tied up at 75 with less than two minutes left, Long Beach took advantage of clutch shots connecting both from the field and the free-throw line. Aboubacar Traore made six free throws in the last two minutes and UCI couldn’t catch up. In the end, they fell to Long Beach, 83-79.

After the game, UCI head coach Russell Turner spoke of his disappointment with his team’s performance in an NCAA tournament elimination game.

“They were better than we were, it’s not that they wanted it more, or we were afraid. We didn’t defend like we usually do, especially in the first half, we didn’t make our free throws, and we weren’t good enough on the glass against a good rebounding team like Long Beach,” Turner said in an interview with the New University.

He also noted the great effort throughout not only this game but the whole year from seniors Crockrell II, Dean Keeler and Dylan Thoerner, who are all playing in their last year of eligibility. 

“They are all champions, and that’s the reason why we had the success this year,” Turner said. “I thought all of those guys performed well tonight, but it wasn’t enough and that’s painful.”

For the second year in a row, UCI failed to reach their goal of making the NCAA tournament.

Long Beach State will go on to face UC Davis (20-12, 14-6) in the final.

UCI will find out on Sunday, March 17 whether or not they will have the opportunity to continue their season in the National Invitation Tournament selection show at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Miguel Rodriguez is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at miguer9@uci.edu.

Edited by James Huston and Andrea Garcia, and Laiyla Santillan