Hawaii falls for first Big West loss vs. Irvine
IRVINE -- Hawaii was finally handed its first Big West Conference loss Wednesday afternoon in Irvine, as UC Irvine toppled the Rainbow Warriors in a back-and-forth battle at the Bren Events Center. The Anteaters were the last players standing; practically needing every last second for a 68-64 win.
A young Anteater squad that has worked to overcome inconsistencies saw the result of their work Wednesday night. Contributions off the bench were integral in the win and UC Irvine (8-9, 2-2) stayed poised and calm when the score was close and the adrenaline was high.
"We said that what we had to do was defend them as a team and we did that," said Anteaters' head coach Russell Turner. "I'm excited that that formula was enough for us to win tonight."
Hawaii (9-6, 3-1) turned the ball over 17 times and turnovers were especially problematic late in the game. The Rainbow Warriors failed to get a defensive stop and faltered in the closing minutes.
It was only Hawaii's second trip to the mainland this season and first Big West game away from its home confines of the Stan Sherriff Center.
The 'Bows were led by Vander Joaquim's 15 points and Christian Standhardinger's 12 points and 13 rebounds.
UC Irvine's biggest contribution came from Chris McNealy who scored 15 points with six rebounds and five assists off the bench. McNealy also had two key steals.
"Chris McNealy off the bench was really big, in many different ways," Turner said.
Irvine played with a balanced offense, with Will Davis scoring 13, Daman Starring scoring 12 and Alex Young finishing with 10. But contributions from those without double-digit point totals played a role just as big.
UC Irvine had 18 assists, with Michael Wilder and Adam Folker contributing half of those. The forwards went cold from the field but made sure to find the hot hands.
"It wouldn't have been enough for us to win if it wasn't for the many contributions of other guys," Turner said. "Mike Wilder didn't make his jumper but as I've seen him do many times, he effected the game... The drives that he made to set up other players, the steals that he made."
A 30.6 percent shooting performance in the first half allowed Hawaii to take an early lead. However, the lead was never larger than eight and UCI began to close the gap in the final minutes of the first half, starting with a big block from McNealy.
Spearman took a long outlet pass and McNealy bolted for the other baseline, swatting it out of Spearman's hands as he tried for the easy layup. Although Spearman made both free throws to push the Warriors' lead to 29-23, it reenergized the Anteaters with just a minute left. From there, UCI went on a 5-2 run to close the gap to 31-28 to end the half.
"That was a big turning point," Turner said. "We got five points out of it and we were lucky they missed the layup on a well-designed play."
UC Irvine used another quick run in the second half to tie the game at 35-all. But it was anybody's game at that point, as both teams traded leads. The lead changed 21 times throughout the course of the game and there were 11 ties.
With 3:38 left in the game the Anteaters finally started to break away. Up by one, Starring took a charge before the final media timeout. Starrring then knocked down both free throw shots to give UC Irvine a 60-57 lead.
On the 'Bows next possession, Alex Young broke up a pass near the backcourt and took it down for a fastbreak jam. The dunk dropped in and popped out of the basket before ultimately dropping in to give UCI a 62-57 lead.
The Anteaters would go up by as much as nine points with a minute left, but the Warriors gave them one last scare.
Joaquim hit a short jumper and Brandon Jawato, a local product out of Lakewood, drained a three from the top.
Davis Rozitis hit a free throw with nine seconds left to bring the score to 68-64. Bodies hit the floor on all ends in the final moments but Hawaii couldn't get another shot off.
Turner credits the way his squad's resolve late in the game as what ultimately carried them through.
"I believe in this team's togetherness," Turner said. "You've got to continue to show toughness at the end of games in order to win."