UC Irvine snaps skid, beats Cal Poly
IRVINE — It was an important game to start an important week for both UC Irvine and Cal Poly.
Cal Poly came to the Bren Events Center in Irvine, having won its last two Big West Conference games to move up to third place in the Big West standings. Conversely, the Anteaters had endured a rocky month and were looking to get back in the race. But in the end, it was UC Irvine that made shots when it mattered the most, knocking down six free throws in the final two minutes to outlast the Mustangs 52-45.
Daman Starring, Alex Young and Michael Wilder combined to go 6-for-6 and the defense didn’t allow Cal Poly to score in the final 2:35.
“Great game — the Anteaters made some free throws,” said UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner. “That was good for us to get our defense back a little bit. I was pleased with the way our defense accepted our challenge and won the game.”
The Anteater defense clearly bothered Cal Poly. A small Mustang lineup was overmatched inside by Adam Folker and Will Davis II and the ‘Eaters held them to just 34.9 percent shooting and only 20 points in the second half — the lowest total of the season for the Mustangs.
It was also the lowest second-half total for an Anteater opponent since 2009 when Farleigh Dickinson scored just 19.
“We played good team basketball,” Turner said. “It’s not pretty, (that is) the types of games that Cal Poly creates, so I give them credit.”
UC Irvine shot 40.9 percent and was dismal from behind the arc with Starring knocking down the only two threes. But Irvine managed to win the game largely at the line, where the Anteaters — the second-worst free throw shooting team in the Big West — went 14-for-17.
“We were more aggressive driving to the basket to get those free throws,” Turner said. “Our big guys set the tone for that early in the game.”
Folker led the game with 16 points to tie his season high and also pulled down a game-high nine boards. Starring scored 12 and Davis finished with nine.
For Cal Poly, Chris Eversley led with 15 and Drake U’u scored eight with eight rebounds.
It was a tense, back-and-forth physical battle throughout the duration. But in the end, the Anteaters (11-11, 5-4) were left in a more favorable position with UC Santa Barbara, just 3-5 and possibly without star center Alan Williams visiting the Bren Saturday. Meanwhile, Cal Poly (9-10, 5-4) will contend with the conference’s No. 1 team in Long Beach State.
The Anteaters jumped out to an 8-0 lead before the Mustangs made their first field goal at 16:02 when Eversley drove the baseline and dunked it over Folker.
A long scoring draught then ensued for the ‘Eaters, as they switched from man-to-man to zone defense, Cal Poly went on a 17-2 run that put them up 19-12 with just 7:27 left in the first half.
But a late run by UC Irvine put them back in the game. Down 22-17, Young and Davis worked together on two key plays to that cut the Poly lead to just one point with over a minute left in the half.
Young inbounded to Davis for a short catch-and-shoot jumper before lobbing one up for the alley-oop on the next play, making the score 22-21. But an Eversley three gave Cal Poly a 25-21 lead going into the locker room at the half.
“That was a big bucket early in the game,” Turner said. “That was a play we looked at just for this team and put it in shoot around today.”
The momentum created carried over into the second half. Davis cut it two with the first play of the half when Starring hit him on a cut to the baseline for a dunk. After a three by Starring tied the game at 26-26 a few possessions later, the Mustangs were able to go back up. Eversly hit a jumper off the curl and Cal Poly was back on top 31-26 at 15:10.
But Irvine kept up the attack on the paint, using an inside-outside approach to tie the game up again, this time at 31-all. The battle ensued from that point, with the two teams trading leads until the closing minutes.
Cal Poly led 45-44 with 2:35 left, but six free throws and some big defensive stops by the Anteaters pushed the game out of reach.