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'Eaters upset 49ers

Men’s Basketball

UCI rallies past top-seeded Long Beach State to move into Big West final on Saturday.

March 15, 2013|By Barry Faulkner
  • UC Irvine's Mike Wilder, left, and Chris McNealy celebrate after beating Long Beach State in a semifinal game in the Big West Conference Tournament on Friday.
UC Irvine's Mike Wilder, left, and Chris McNealy… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

ANAHEIM — Undoubtedly this season, Coach Russell Turner has wondered where his UC Irvine men's basketball team would be without a senior nucleus that has been so vital in so many ways.

For most of the No. 4-seeded Anteaters' seesaw struggle with top-seeded Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament on Friday at Honda Center, Turner was faced with that very proposition.

With less than seven minutes to play and trailing the 49ers, 49-43, UCI senior guards Daman Starring and Mike Wilder were a combined two for 17 from the field. In addition, senior post Adam Folker was watching his fourth straight game from the sideline with an injury.

But Starring helped rescue what otherwise was a lackluster night for the senior catalysts, helping the Anteaters rally for a 67-60 victory that puts them on the verge of history.

The win propels UCI (20-15) into Saturday's championship game against No. 2-seeded Pacific. Saturday's winner claims the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, which would be a first for UCI, which has won eight of its last nine and is now 15-1 in games played in Orange County this season.

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Starring had back-to-back assists in three-pointers by sophomore Travis Souza and Wilder that pulled UCI within 51-49 with 5:06 to play.

After a follow shot by Will Davis kept the deficit at two, Starring drew an offensive foul on Long Beach's subsequent possession. Then, with 3:41 left, he dribbled, drew a defender and dished to Alex Young for a three-pointer from the left corner that gave UCI a 54-53 advantage it would not relinquish.

Starring made a free throw and a driving left-handed layup on UCI's next two possessions to open a four-point advantage.  Finally, with UCI up, 61-57, Starring, whose seven points were just more than half his team-leading average of 13.2 per game, penetrated again, drawing the defense and setting up his assist to Davis for an exclamation dunk with 35 seconds left.

Starring and Young converted two free throws apiece in the final seconds to help UCI earn its fourth trip to the Big West Tournament final, its first since 2008. It's the Anteaters' first 20-win season since the 2002-03 team finished 20-9.

Young led the winners with 18 points and four assists, while Davis, a sophomore and the conference Defensive Player of the Year, had 14 points on six-of-eight shooting, with nine rebounds and three blocked shots.  Davis leads UCI in the tournament, scoring 13.5 per contest.

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