UC Irvine captures Big West regular season title
IRVINE, Calif. — Super Bowl XLVIII might have been the best thing to happen to the UC Irvine basketball team during the conference season.
A team built on defense, head coach Russell Turner has used that game as an example of just how far a defense can take a team ever since.
Saturday, that defense let very few shots through the net and finished off its night by cutting the nets of the Bren Center down, as the Anteaters won the regular season Big West Championship outright with a 74-46 win over UC Davis.
"He always refers to the Super Bowl game, the better defensive team won that game," said senior guard Chris McNealy. "We know that the sky is the limit with our defense."
The defense has been the team’s calling card not just in their championship season, but it’s been the foundation of the team since Turner took over four seasons ago. It took four years, but the product built around that foundation is a winning one and the team is looking more than formidable as a No. 1 seed in next week’s Big West Championship Tournament at the Honda Center.
To be consistently good in this conference is a big step for us and I’m proud of that.
UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner
"It’s a long process," Turner said. "You hope you can do it and when you say hope you got to believe that you can do it and then convince a bunch of other people – staff, players – it’s a long process to get to where we are tonight.
"To be consistently good in this conference is a big step for us and I’m proud of that."
It’s the Anteaters’ first conference championship since 2001 and only the programs’ third ever title. It’s the second they have won outright.
For UC Davis (9-22, 4-12), it ended a tough, injury-riddled season as the Aggies failed to follow up an exciting 2012-13 campaign and will not make the trip back down to Orange County for the Big West tournament next week.
The Anteaters (22-10, 13-3) outplayed the Aggies in nearly all facets with a balanced offense to compliment a staunch defense on the other end. The Aggies were held to just 26.4 percent from the field – a season-low opponent mark for UC Irvine – while the Anteaters shot 46.7 percent, outrebounded them 48-26 and had 18 assists and 12 blocks.
UC Davis stayed the game early but a second-half surge overwhelmed the depleted Aggies.
It was a win that culminated a season that has been building for a while now.
McNealy, the team’s only senior, was one of Turner’s first recruits. He was on teams that were picked to finish last in the Big West and played in front of only a handful of fans. Saturday, he played in front of 2,254 and is expecting a much bigger one than that at the Honda Center next week.
He believed in what Turner was building and knew all along that this would be the outcome.
"The excitement and energy that he brought, I knew that I could trust him," McNealy said. "When we first got here, this was our goal: To win one of these types of games and eventually win a Big West Conference Tournament game.
"We know that we did good, but we know that we’ve got a long way to go."
The regular season championship was a huge benchmark for a program that Turner built from the ground up. If you ask him, he’s still building. But there is no timeline, this team is right where it wants to be at the moment.
Next week, where they hope to be is at center court, trophy in hand.
"It’s hard to do what we’ve done this year," Turner said. "But our goals are certainly greater than what we have accomplished. But the more we accomplish, the greater our goals will become."