IRVINE — By showing proficiency in most areas that counted Saturday, the UC Irvine men's basketball team got the rare opportunity to expose what, for now at least, is an innocuous weakness.
"We're not very comfortable with an 18-point lead," Anteaters Coach Russell Turner said with a smile after his team faltered slightly near the finish of a 79-69 Big West Conference victory against visiting Cal State Northridge before a season-best crowd of 3,907 at the Bren Events Center.
But before getting the chance to fritter away some of and advantage that swelled to 20 points with 3:39 left, the Anteaters thrilled the homecoming rooters with their best shooting performance of the season.
UCI (9-9, 3-2 in conference), which improved to 6-1 at home, made 30 of 47 field-goal attempts for an eye-popping 63.8%. The hosts were 11 of 18 from three-point range, including seven of 10 in the second half, to finish at 61.1% from beyond the arc. Both percentages topped previous single-game bests this season.
The shooting success helped UCI overcome a 22-10 turnover deficit that included eight miscues in just more than a minute during the closing 100 seconds.
"We've got to practice that," Turner said of handling frenetic full-court pressure while trying to protect a substantial lead. "But there are a lot of other things we have to practice first."
UCI led, 38-35, at halftime as the first 20 minutes featured eight tie scores and four lead changes.
"I thought in the first half that we came to play and we were smart," Turner said. "We had everything except being completely there. I was really disappointed by our lack of energy I thought we should have had in a game like this with that great crowd."
But if UCI disappointed their supporters in any way in the first half, they made up for it with a second-half blitz spearheaded by senior Daman Starring.
Starring, the team's leading scorer, missed his three first-half shots and had no points at intermission. But he made all five of his shots in the second half, including four three-pointers, to help the 'Eaters pull away.
Starring finished with 14 points to share team-high honors with senior Adam Folker. Folker had five rebounds and was two for two from the foul line, the first time all season the 34% foul shooter was perfect on free throws. Folker had 10 points in the first half.
Sophomore Will Davis had 12 of his 13 points before halftime. He added a team-best eight rebounds and produced five of UCI's eight blocked shots. He was five of six from the field.
Freshman point guard Alex Young chipped in eight points and nine assists, while senior Mike Wilder contributed nine assists, six rebounds and five points.
UCI collected 24 assists on its 30 field goals and its 17 missed field-goal attempts were only four more than Northridge sophomore scoring leader Stephan Hicks produced by making just one of his 14 attempts. Hicks, who was zero for 11 for the field, before banking in a runner with 7:56 left in the game, finished with seven points, one-third of his average in four previous conference games.
"Well, I think [Hicks] had an off night, first of all," Turner said of the talented 6-foot-6 swing man. "The places where he scores … we tried to take those away. And there were a couple of individual tendencies we wanted to make sure we focused on. But I never thought he'd have a one-for-14 performance."
Turner also praised the performances of reserves Chris McNealy (seven points on three-of-five shooting from the field), 7-0 freshman Connor Clifford (eight points, two rebounds and two blocks on three-of-three shooting from the field), and Travis Souza (seven points while sinking two of three three-point attempts).
UCI's aforementioned late sloppiness allowed the Matadors (9-8, 0-5) to pull within 77-67 with 33 seconds left. The late rally prompted Turner to sheepishly return starters Wilder, Folker and Davis to the lineup after emptying his bench.
It was UCI's third-largest margin of victory in three wins this season against Division I opponents, the biggest being a 14-point verdict against Nevada in the season opener.
Big West Conference