IRVINE — Moments after storming the court following UC Irvine's 72-69 Big West Conference men's basketball over first-place Long Beach State on Saturday, numerous Anteater students aimed their cellphones skyward to capture an image of the scoreboard.
But years from now, when they gather to retell the story of the ninth home conference victory in nine tries this season, it's the goose bumps, not a photo, that will jump to mind.
For 'Eaters Coach Russell Turner, the lump materialized in his throat, as he began to try to relate what the four seniors honored before their final home game have given to his young program.
Adam Folker (a team-best 16 points to go with seven rebounds), Mike Wilder (10 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, including a huge three-pointer that broke a 63-63 deadlock with 1:10 left and two foul shots with 3.8 seconds remaining to finalize the scoring), Daman Starring (10 points, including both ends of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 27 seconds left that put the hosts up, 68-63) and Derrick Flowers (five points on two-of-three shooting from the field in a starting role) were among the UCI heroes.
That list also included sophomore Will Davis, who blocked a career-high-tying eight shots to go with 12 points and five boards. Sophomore Travis Souza went three for five from three-point range for nine points, while adding four rebounds, and freshman Alex Young had eight points and four assists. Young's biggest assist was a cross-court pass to Wilder for the aforementioned 49ers' killer. And Young sank two free throws in a one-and-one situation with 19.9 ticks remaining.
"We had a lot of guys play well," said Turner, whose team broke a five-game losing streak to Long Beach State to remain no worse than fourth in the Big West with two regular-season conference games remaining. "Trying to find a player of the game was tough … That's kind of the essence of this team."
Turner, whose squad improved to 17-13, 10-6 in conference, said Davis' defense was the biggest key to knocking off the conference bully. But he was also stirred by the significance and story arc his four seniors brought to the senior-night triumph.
"I've got to stop myself, because I kind of get choked up," Turner said when asked about his seniors. "Because it's hard. It's hard on them and it's hard on us coaches. The thing I'm most excited about is these guys embody the character qualities we want here at Irvine. We're committed, we have integrity, we appreciate the opportunity to play college basketball and all the things that go into making that a reality for us.
"Tonight's game ensures that we have a winning season [its first since 2007-08] and there's a lot of days when you wonder if that's going to happen," said Turner, in his third season at the helm. "The great thing about college sports, is that guys make that happen. Those seniors made that happen. They should get credit for that, because of the people they are, and the players they are. They aren't out there beating Long Beach because they are good people. They are out there beating Long Beach because they are good people who can play."
UCI, 12-1 at home this season, made an 11-2 run late in the first half, which it finished with a 5-0 burst to take a 33-22 lead. Long Beach State made just eight of 31 from the field before intermission (25.8%).
The visitors (17-11, 13-3) used a 12-2 run to close within 37-34 and the two teams traded scoring punches until a steal and dunk by senior James Innis capped a 6-0 run in 44 seconds by the 49ers that knotted things at 63.
After Wilder's three-pointer regained the lead for the hosts, Davis, who epitomized Turner's emphasis on increased toughness after UCI was trounced, 81-59, in Long Beach on Jan. 26, made his final block with 35 seconds left.
Caffey, who led all scorers with 23, including 16 in the second half, netted three-pointers with 22 and four seconds left to keep things interesting.
"They took it to us and destroyed us in the paint in the second half," Turner said of Long Beach, which shot 62.5% in the final 20 minutes, during which it had 26 points from inside the lane.
"We were just trying to be aggressive tonight," Davis said. "The whole team just wanted to give the seniors a win in their last game in the Bren, so, everybody played their hardest and I was just doing my part on defense."
Folker said it was truly a win to remember.
"That feels fantastic," Folker said. "We've got a saying 'Defend the Bren,' and that's what we did."
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 72, Long Beach State 69