LONG BEACH — The Big West Conference championship torch wasn't exactly passed Thursday night, but the UC Irvine men's basketball team effectively nudged it from its familiar resting place at the Walter Pyramid.
UCI held on for a 46-44 conference-opening victory over host Long Beach State, which has captured the previous three Big West regular-season titles.
Mamadou Ndiaye, UCI's 7-foot-6 center dunked an entry pass from Travis Souza with 2:07 left to put UCI up, 45-42, and sophomore Mike Best sank the first of a one-and-one free-throw situation with nine seconds remaining to give the visitors (10-7) a two-point lead.
Long Beach State, with no timeouts remaining, bobbled the ball in the backcourt after collecting Best's missed free throw, wasting valuable time. The 49ers eventually cleared midcourt with about five seconds remaining as senior Mike Caffey dribbled toward the left wing. Caffey then passed to Travis Hammonds on the right wing, but Hammonds' missed three-point attempt failed to beat the buzzer.
UCI used a 10-0 run early in the second half to take a 33-25 lead and when senior Chris McNealy netted a three-pointer with 12:42 remaining, UCI's lead was 41-29.
UCI, however, went 8:19 without a field goal to allow the 49ers to pull within 43-42, before Ndiaye's slam.
Hammonds cut the deficit to 45-44 with a 10-footer with 48 seconds left and Souza missed a three-pointer with about 20 seconds left.
Caffey missed a runner that Ndiaye rebounded with 13.8 seconds left and Long Beach State immediately fouled to give UCI the ball out of bounds. UCI Coach Russell Turner substituted his best free-throw shooters and Best, statistically No. 2 on the roster at 91.7 percent fielded the subsequent inbounds pass and converted.
"Defense travels," said Turner, whose team held the 49ers to 31.5% shooting from the field (17 for 54) and won the rebounding battle, 42-35. "You can win road games if you play defense.
"We made enough plays offensively during one stretch early in the second half and we got enough rebounds to win the game. Our guys showed poise late. Best is the second-best free-throw shooter we have, so that's why he was out there. He stepped up and converted that first one and it was a big moment for him."
UCI, picked to win the conference in the preseason poll, got 12 points, five rebounds and four assists from McNealy, as well as 11 points and four rebounds from sophomore guard Alex Young.
Ndiaye, a defensive presence throughout, had 11 rebounds, four blocks and four points, while freshman guard Luke Nelson had eight points, five rebounds and three assists.
The win ended a five-game home winning streak against UCI for the 49ers, who dropped the final two games against UCI last season, including a 67-60 loss in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament.
The 49ers (4-11) came out on top, 24-23, in a see-saw first half that featured five ties and six lead changes.
Despite having its starters sit the first seven minutes due to disciplinary reasons, the hosts seized leads of 2-0, 6-3, and 9-5.
Through just more than 13 minutes, Long Beach State standouts Tyler Lamb, Caffey and Dan Jennings had combined for no points, no rebounds and only one field-goal attempt.
But Lamb completed a three-point play and an acrobatic reverse layup to help give Long Beach an 18-16 advantage with 5:09 left in the first half. Lamb finished the first half with five points, but Caffey, a first-team all-conference performer as a junior who came in averaging 16.7 points per game, had one point.
Jennings, a 6-9 senior who entered the game averaging 11.2 points and 7.9 rebounds, had no offensive stats and two fouls in four minutes of action.
Hammonds led the hosts with 12 points, while Lamb added 11. Caffey, who was zero for eight from the field, had two points and Jennings managed just three points and two rebounds in 16 minutes. Lamb, Caffey and Jennings were a combined four for 20 from the field.