NCAA BK

Pacific holds off UC Irvine to win Big West, 64-55

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP)

For one dream to continue, another must end.

UC Irvine mounted a second-half surge but came up short in its bid to win the school's first NCAA tournament berth, falling 64-55 in the Big West Conference Tournament championship Saturday night to University of Pacific and coach Bob Thomason, who is taking the Tigers to the NCAAs for the fifth time in his 25th and final year at the school.

Reserve Tony Gill scored 19 points and Lorenzo McCloud added 16 for No. 2 seed Pacific, which earned its ninth NCAA berth but first since 2006.

It was a disappointing finish for No. 4 seed Irvine, which upset No. 1 seed Long Beach State to reach the Big West championship.

''This is the best team I've ever been on,'' said Anteaters guard Daman Starring, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the second-half rally that fell just short. ''We're really a close knit group. We've really grown the last two years.''

Instead of earning the school's first NCAA berth, the Anteaters will play in the CIT.

''We're disappointed to not come out on top, but I will say that I'm incredibly proud of our team,'' Irvine coach Russell Turner said. ''I thought we fought, we were fearless. Pacific made more plays than we did.''

Thomason's retirement was put off for at least one more game.

''You couldn't have scripted it any better,'' he said. ''God had a great plan for this team, and me. ... I'll have to ask him someday, about why. I think our team really earned it down the stretch of the season.''

Thomason and the Tigers plan to make the most of their opportunity.

''If you can get into that 13 or so seed you always have a chance,'' said Thomason, who passed Jerry Tarkanian as the winningest coach in Big West history this season. ''And it depends on the team and the matchup, what their strengths are and what you can do. We'll find out (Sunday) at 3:30, so, maybe 14, 15, 16, maybe we'll play the play-in game. Whatever it is, we'll show up for it.''

No. 2 seed Pacific beat UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before outlasting Irvine. Gill made 6 of 12 shots from the field including 2 of 3 on 3-pointers, and 5 of 6 free throws to earn tournament MVP honors.

''I just came in with the right mindset, coming in prepared and having confidence in myself,'' said Gill, a junior college transfer in his first year at Pacific. ''It's one thing I lacked early on in the season, making the transition from junior college. It's a big jump getting used to everything and the speed of the game.''

Pacific (22-12) held an 11-point lead at halftime, but Irvine (20-15) rallied in the second half behind Starring.

A putback by Chris McNealy (12 points) got the Anteaters within 44-41 with 10:45 remaining, but that was as close as they would get. Irvine, bidding for its first NCAA berth, lost its fourth Big West title game.

''It wasn't just Tony Gill,'' Irvine coach Russell Turner said. ''Pacific, they have an interesting team. They're difficult to match up with when they come with five shooters and they have two big guys who can both stretch and shoot 3's. Gill's play in the first half especially was probably the key to the game with the shots that he made. But also Lorenzo McCloud created many of those with his outstanding penetration. The two of those guys were outstanding tonight.''

Pacific led 31-20 at halftime and increased its lead 33-20 when Colin Beatty scored the first basket of the second half. Then the Anteaters, who shot just 26 percent from the field in the first half, suddenly got hot. An alley-oop from Michael Wilder to Will Davis II resulted in a spectacular one-handed dunk and started an 11-2 run that moved the Anteaters to within 42-39 with 11:36 left in the game.

Irvine got within five points in the final minutes, but Pacific made its free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

''We're disappointed to not come out on top, but I will say that I'm incredibly proud of our team,'' Turner said. ''I thought we fought, we were fearless. Pacific made more plays than we did.''

Pacific took a quick 4-0 lead, then went cold, missing its next nine shots and allowing Irvine to take the lead at 5-4 when Wilder hit a 3-pointer. Sama Taku's layup ended the dry spell, put the Tigers back on top and seemed to get them going.

A basket by Wilder gave the Anteaters their last lead of the first half a 9-8. A 3-pointer by Markus Duran put Pacific up 22-14, and after another defensive stop by Pacific, McCloud scored down low and the Tigers increased their lead to 24-14.

The lead grew to 26-14 after another bucket by McCloud.

Despite its cold start, Pacific shot 39 percent (13 for 33) from the floor in the first half, and held Irvine to just 26 percent (7 for 27) shooting. Pacific also held a 23-15 advantage on the boards, led by Travis Fulton, who had six rebounds.

McCloud and Gill each had eight points at the half, and Wilder had five points for Irvine.

Tagged: Pacific (CA), UC-Irvine, Michael Wilder

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