ANAHEIM — For all of those invited, Bob Thomason’s retirement party has been delayed until further notice. He’s got a dance to attend first.
The second-seeded Tigers effectively extended the career of their 25-year head coach by at least one more game with a Big West tournament championship win, Saturday night at the Honda Center. In front of a crowd of 6,795, the Tigers battled No. 4 seed UC Irvine until the final minutes, emerging victorious with a 64-55 win.
“You couldn’t have written the script any better,” Thomason said. “I think our team really earned it down the stretch of the season. I didn’t think early in the season that we did but I kind of believe that once you earn things, good things happen to you.”
The win, Pacific’s seventh in a row, secured the program’s ninth NCAA tournament appearance – fifth under Thomason – and its last as a member of the Big West Conference.
“I told him before the game it was an honor to compete against him. He’s the winningest coach in conference history,” said UCI head coach Russell Turner. “The job he’s done this year is outstanding.”
After a season devoid of a true star, the Tigers (21-12) finally found one in Tony Gill.
For the second night in a row, Gill was unstoppable of the bench. He scored 19 of the Tigers’ 31 bench points going 6-for-12 from the line and 2-for-3 from the arc and was named tournament MVP.
It was a somewhat unexpected award for the junior college transfer. Gill was humbled earlier in the season when he realized that the adjustment to Division I basketball wasn’t as smooth as anticipated.
The gravity of the moment finally sunk in as the clock began to expire.
“I’ve watched the tournament every year and I’ve never thought I would ever be able to go to the tournament,” Gill said. “Once those final seconds went down it makes you think back to when you first started in august all of the hard work you put in lifting weights or running.
“All the coaches tell us the hard work is going to pay off later and this definitely paid off for us.”
Lorenzo McCloud scored 16 points and pulled down seven boards and was also named to the all-tournament team.
Joining those two from UC Irvine (20-15) was Alex Young, the Big West Co-Freshman of the Year, Will Davis II and Daman Starring.
Starring tied with Gill for a game-high 19 points and Chris McNealy scored 12 with five boards and four assists.
The Anteaters, the hottest-shooting team in Anaheim during the week, shot 35.8 percent from the field and just 24 percent from the perimeter, unable to find their stride from outside.
“I thought we fought, we were fearless and yet, Pacific made more plays than we did and they should get cerdit for winning tonight,” Turner said. “When the game was at its most physical, they were a little bit better than we were.”
Pacific began to pull away in the first half with a 16-4 run near the halfway point.
Tied at 10-10 Gill backed down Adam Folker and hit a turnaround jumper to begin the rally. After two free throws by Rivera, Gill hit a three to three to extend the Tigers’ lead to 17-12.
With 7:32 left, the lead was extended to 10 and Pacific held the advantage throughout the half, going into the locker room with a 31-20 lead.
But the Anteaters stayed patient defensively and were able to come back with a strong run of their own in the second.
With over five minutes into the second half and now trailing by 12, Wilder threw up a lob to Davis II for the one-handed alley-oop slam. The play gave the Anteaters a new spark and Irvine then scored nine straight points to come back to within three, 42-39. Starring capped off the rally with a big corner three from Starring with 11:30 on the clock.
Late in the game, the Anteaters’ found their stroke again when Starring hit two threes to cut the Tigers’ lead to 55-50 with only three minutes left, But forced to foul, Pacific hit 9-of-12 free throws in the final 1:26.
“I definitely thought we were going to come back and win right there,” Starring said. “Like coach said, we have resilience. That’s the one thing we’ve been able to show and do all season.”
UC Irvine is now 0-4 in Big West tournament championship games and has yet to play in an NCAA tournament. The Anteaters will now play in the College Insider tournament but will ultimately look to build on this season’s success in years to come.
“We’ve got something special even though we didn’t win tonight I think every person in our locker room believed we not only could but would,” Turner said. “I’d root for us.”