IRVINE — UC Irvine lit it up from the field, Saturday afternoon at the Bren Events Center. A second-half shooting clinic helped power the Anteaters past Cal State Northridge, 79-69 for its second-straight Big West win.
The Anteaters (9-9, 3-2) shot a scorching 75 percent in the second half making 15 field goals and seven threes. Daman Starring led Irvine with four, all in the second half, to finish with 14 points. Adam Folker also finished with 14 points and Will Davis II scored 13 and pulled down eight boards.
Execution and ball movement were both strong on the part of Irvine, as the Anteaters had 24 assists, the second-most this season, leading head coach Russell Turner to praise his team for playing a complete game.
“If we do it like that, that’s the result,” Turner said. “And when I say like that, I mean played together. We got performances from a bunch of different guys and we shared the ball.”
Northridge (9-8, 0-5) came out strong offensively but was halted in the second half, shooting just 37.5 percent. Stephen Maxwell’s 20 points paced the Matadors, who have now dropped five straight to open conference play.
Stephan Hicks, once the Big West’s leading scorer, was clearly bothered by the Anteaters’ zone as he went just 1-for-14 from the field and missed both three-point attempts.
“I think he had an off night,” Turner said.
The game plan with Hicks, whose five points is far below his 18.7 average, was to focus on limiting his chances in transition and play the right match up on him.
“I thought that if we did that, we would play him well,” Turner said. “I never thought that he would have a 1-for-14 performance because he’s a really good player.”
The Anteaters got off to a hot shooting start but turnovers opened the door for the Matadors. While UCI shot 55.6 percent in the first half, Northridge scored nine points off of eight turnovers and managed to take a lead halfway through.
Up 21-15, the Anteaters cut it by three when Wilder rattled in a triple at 9:25. But on Irvine’s next possession Wilder was whistled for traveling after trying to cut inside off a shot fake. Ian Clark then hit a jumper for the Matadors to bring the lead back up to five.
CSUN held the advantage until the final few minutes of the first half when UCI scored nine points over the final 2:20, with two points coming from a great inbounds play by Davis.
With just 0.2 seconds left, Alex Young inbounded the ball into Davis right at the baseline. Davis got a screen and threw up a short fallback jumper that went in just as the buzzer sounded.
“That was a heck of a momentum deal,” Turner said. “That was one of the options on one of the plays. All I did was call the play and our freshman point guard knew it right away, the one guy who could have made the play knew it right away and the guy who screened for it knew it right away.”
In an effort to diminish the Anteaters’ strong inside presence, led by Folker’s 10 first-half points, the Matadors upped the pressure in the paint in the second half, forcing UCI to take their game outside. The Anteaters responded by knocking down nearly everything that came their way.
The turning point came midway through the second half when the Anteaters went on an 11-3 run that was capped off by a big dunk by fan favorite Conor Clifford. Michael Wilder missed a three but Clifford battled for the rebound, came away with it and launched himself into the air and erupting in celebration as he came down from the rim.
While the Clifford cheering section and the Anteater bench mobbed one another, Turner declined the celebration.
“Coach didn’t like that play,” Turner joked. Turner was was afraid the officials would award a technical for hanging on the rim, as Irvine had been called for that earlier in the season. “I was surprised that he made that decision there and I reminded the team of that pretty quickly.”
There game was the Anteaters’ second-straight televised affair, as it was broadcast on FOX Sports Prime Ticket, and Turner said that he is happy with the product that his team put out for a national audience this week.
“It’s good to get recognition,” Turner said. To play well on TV is really important for us because perception matters.”