LOS ANGELES — The road to greater respectability for the UC Irvine men's basketball team this season has included plane trips, bus rides and plenty of disappointment. But the Anteaters' trek home from its ninth road game of the season at USC's Galen Center on Thursday was anything but solemn.
The Anteaters surged to a 12-point halftime lead and held on for a 61-54 nonconference upset that capped the preconference portion of their schedule with the kind of win that can lift the profile of Coach Russell Turner's program.
UCI made its final five field-goal attempts of the first half and its first shot of the final 20 minutes to widen its advantage.
The Anteaters, who have not surrendered any of their five halftime leads this season, never led by fewer than five in the final 20 minutes.
Senior guard Daman Starring had 13 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to pace the winners. The team's leading scorer, averaging 12.5 points per game coming in, made five of six three-point attempts and was eight for 15 from the field.
Senior post Adam Folker contributed 12 points on six-of-eight shooting from the field, while senior Mike Wilder had all nine of his points in the first half, courtesy of a trio of three-pointers. Wilder had a team-best seven rebounds as USC posted a 34-28 advantage on the glass.
USC had 16 turnovers, 10 more than the 'Eaters, who made two steals in the final two minutes to deny the Trojans any credible late comeback run.
"It really does feel good to be rewarded with a win against another tough defensive team," Turner said. "I've got a real smart team and thought they showed that tonight."
UCI (6-7) is now 2-7 away from the Bren Events Center, where it saw its pristine 3-0 record tainted on Tuesday with a loss to LSU. The 'Eaters have now won two straight road games, having scored the final 12 points of the contest at Fresno State to rescue a 58-51 triumph on Saturday.
Other than the win in Fresno, UCI would have to look to its season-opening home win against Nevada for a triumph as meaningful as the one it earned Thursday. It was only the Anteaters' second win in eight tries against the Trojans (4-7), who had earned half of their wins this season against Big West competition.
More encouraging than the victory for the sprinkling of UCI supporters among the 3,879 in attendance, was the confidence and offensive flow the Anteaters displayed. Their crisp ball movement led to consistently open shots and their determined and disciplined defense forced USC to settle for less-than-ideal opportunities.
USC's defense failed to bother the visitors in their half-court pick-and-roll offense. UCI used this lack of aggression on the part of the Trojans to burn valuable time in the closing minutes.
UCI used a season-low eight-player rotation, as only six players scored.
Former UCI star Eric Wise, who is using his final year of eligibility after three seasons with the Anteaters, led the Trojans with 12 points, including a pair of three-pointers. But the 6-foot-6 wing had only three rebounds and missed a layup that Wilder rebounded with 1:34 left.
UCI made was four for four from the foul line until freshman Alex Young missed a pair with 1:05 remaining. But USC did not score after a layup by Byron Wesley with 3:11 left.
"[The Anteaters] played great," said USC Coach Kevin O'Neill. "They deserved to win."
UCI used three separate 7-0 runs in the opening half to establish control. Over a span of nearly 11 minutes in the second half, UCI converted four of six field goals from three-point range, including three by Starring, to continue to lead.
UCI opens Big West play at home on Dec. 29 against UC Davis. The 'Eaters then play five of their next seven conference games on the road.