IRVINE — Saturday was the annual promotion that brings hundreds of elementary school kids to the Bren Events Center for a statistics-based math competition. But at the bottom line against visiting UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine men's basketball coach Russell Turner said it was the man he counts upon most who was able to make the difference.
UCI senior Mike Wilder, who had missed his previous 10 three-point attempts, dating back to the first half of the Jan. 26 loss at Long Beach State, netted a three-pointer with 8.7 seconds left to propel the Anteaters to a 62-60 Big West Conference triumph in front of 3,430 emotionally drained spectators.
"You've got to have a pure heart to make that shot," Turner said of Wilder's first game-winner as an Anteater. "There were a couple places [Chris McNealy, who drove into the lane before kicking back out to Wilder near the top of the three-point arc] could have gone on the kick pass, but I'm pretty good with who he went to. That's probably who I would have thrown it to … I've seen Mike Wilder make a lot of big shots down the stretch, so it wasn't a surprise [he made that one]. He has not shot the ball as well this year as in his previous two years [28.9% this season before the game-winner]. But he is an incredible competitor, with as much character as any guy or player that we've got or that I've seen."
Wilder, whose 192 career three-pointers rank fourth in UCI career annals, said he was up to the task.
"When [Taran Brown] made that shot before we called timeout [a 12-foot baseline turnaround that put the visitors up, 60-59, for their first lead since 5-4 with 21 seconds left] I told myself if the ball comes to me, this needs to go in," Wilder said. "I need to cash this. [McNealy] found me and my teammates have all the confidence in the world in me. They always tell me never to stop shooting. I shot it, it felt good and it went in … My confidence was good, actually. I know I hadn't hit a [three-point] shot up to that point, but in that moment, I just knew that if it came to me, I needed to put it through."
When Wilder connected, the crowd erupted in a deafening roar that made it impossible for even Wilder to hear his trademark exultation that follows all of his big shots.
"I just yell 'Let's go!,'" Wilder said. "It's something to get me more pumped up, more hyped-up during the games. "The noise was insane. Not very many times have I heard it that loud in the Bren, and it was nice to see."
UCI (12-11, 6-4 in conference) was nearly blinded by a staggering comeback by the Gauchos (7-14, 3-7), who trailed, 40-20, late in the first half.
Al Williams scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half, Kyle Boswell had nine of his 15 after the break, and a shift to a two-three zone helped the visitors whittle away at the lead. When Michael Bryson sank a three-pointer with 55 seconds left, UCSB was within 59-58.
After Adam Folker missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 40 seconds left, Brown erased the deficit, only to set the stage for Wilder.
"We did exactly what I told my guys to do," Turner said of his team's last possession. "We ran our shooters to spots that would stretch their two-three zone, drove it into the interior, then came right back to the trigger guy."
Williams, who converted the game-winning three-point play in the final seconds of UCSB's 74-71 win over UCI on Jan. 5, fouled out with 40 seconds left Saturday.
Boswell missed a twisting three-point attempt at the buzzer.
McNealy had 10 points off the bench, all in the first half, while Folker and Will Davis had nine points apiece. Davis added six rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
Wilder finished with seven points and had four assists, as did freshman Alex Young, who scored 12 points.
UCI visits Cal State Northridge on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 62, UC Santa Barbara 60
UCSB – Brown 7, Williams 22, Bryson 12, Thomas 0, Taylor 0, Boswell 15, Moore 2, Beeler 2.
3-pt. goals – Bryson 2, Boswell 2, Brown 1.
Fouled out – Williams.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Davis 9, Folker 9, Starring 7, Young 12, Wilder 7, McNealy 10, Flowers 6, Clifford 2.
3-pt. goals – McNealy 2, Starring 1, Wilder 1.
Fouled out – None.
Halftime – UCI, 40-23.