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Men's Basketball: 'Eaters rise toward crown

McNealy's 17 points, and strong inside play, help UCI take sole possession of Big West lead.

February 27, 2014|By Barry Faulkner
(SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

The dream is nearing reality for the UC Irvine men's basketball team, just the way the Anteaters have learned to envision their season — one game at a time.

As games go, none yet this season was bigger than Thursday's Big West Conference affair, pitting UCI against conference co-leader UC Santa Barbara.

The Anteaters (19-10, 10-2 in conference), competing for their first conference regular-season crown since the 2001-02 season, moved a step closer with a 71-60 victory in front of 2,680 at Bren Events Center.

With three regular-season conference games left — Saturday at home against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Thursday at Cal State Fullerton and March 8 at home against UC Davis — UCI has a one-game lead on both UCSB (18-8, 9-4) and Long Beach State, which topped Hawaii on Thursday.

Senior Chris McNealy led the winners, ranked No. 22, nine spots behind the Gauchos in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, with 17 points. He made all five of his field-goal attempts and both of his three-pointers, while adding four rebounds and two assists. He was also five for five from the free-throw line.

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"The atmosphere was really great," said McNealy, who helped his team avenge an 80-60 drubbing in Santa Barbara on Jan. 30. "It was two of the top teams in the league trying to get the No. 1 spot. I was hitting shots, picking my spots and luckily they were going in."

Junior Will Davis, who missed all six of his first-half field-goal attempts, was four for eight in the second half on his way to 14 points. He added eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots and was particularly productive down the stretch. He was at the center of things at both ends after 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye fouled out with 1:49 remaining.

Ndiaye, who played just six minutes after intermission due to foul trouble, finished with 11 points and six rebounds, and was credited with only one of his two blocked shots. He was four for five from the field and made all three of his foul shots, a feat since he came in having made just 38% of his free throws.

Davis and Ndiaye, as well as a defensive game plan designed to limit Gauchos' super post Alan Williams, did just that. Williams, who came in averaging 22.5 points and an NCAA-best 12 rebounds per contest, had 15 points (third-fewest this season), six rebounds and four turnovers. Williams, who came in shooting 54.3% from the field, made five of 12. He also made just five of nine from the foul line.

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