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’Eaters win, then lose out

BASKETBALL: UCI tops Titans, but settles for No. 5 seed in Big West tourney, meaning no bye.

March 07, 2009|By Barry Faulkner

FULLERTON — The UC Irvine men’s basketball team was playing for a chance at the No. 4 seed in the upcoming Big West Tournament. But Saturday’s game at Cal State Fullerton was more about three than four.

The Anteaters took care of what they could, topping the Titans, 65-62, in the Big West regular-season finale in front of 2,781 at Titan Gym. The win put UCI in position to claim the valuable No. 4 seed, which comes with a first-day bye.

But UC Santa Barbara beat visiting Long Beach State, 76-75, later Saturday, to bump UCI to the No. 5 seed. Now, UCI will need to win four games in four days to win the tournament crown and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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UCI finished in a three-way tie for fourth place with UCSB and UC Riverside. But after tiebreakers, UCSB claims the No. 4 seed. UCI is No. 5 and UC Riverside is No. 6.

That means UCI will open the tournament Wednesday night at 6 against No. 8-seeded UC Davis, which swept the Anteaters in two conference meetings this season.

Having played two hours earlier than the rest of the conference Saturday, at least UCI (12-18, 8-8 in conference) had some extra time to feel good about finishing with four wins in its final five regular-season games. The late surge, the most successful five-game stint of the season for a UCI team that opened the campaign 1-9, has some spouting optimism.

“Anything’s possible,” said UCI junior guard Michael Hunter, who scored 16 points, including four three-pointers, against Fullerton (14-16, 7-9). “To play those four games in four days is tough.”

UCI accomplished three-fourths of that tall order last season, winning three times before falling to the Titans in the title game.

Fullerton Coach Bob Burton, as well as UCI Coach Pat Douglass, both said winning four straight at the Anaheim Convention Center would be unexpected.

“[The bye] is big because, this year, all the teams are so even, the more games you have to play, it’s hard,” Douglass said. “No one is going to be that consistent to win four days probably. If they do, you take your hat off to them.”

Burton said having had the first-day bye last season helped his Titans handle a fatigued UCI squad in the final.

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