UC Irvine freshmen Luke Nelson and Mamadou Ndiaye were freshmen in high school the last time someone other than Long Beach State won the Big West Conference regular-season men's basketball championship.
But Nelson and Ndiaye combined to help UCI move another step closer to displacing the 49ers by leading the Anteaters to a dramatic 61-58 victory in front of 2,979 at the Bren Events Center on Thursday.
Nelson, an import from Worthing England, scored a career-high 28 points, including five three-pointers and the final three points of the game for the winners.
Ndiaye, a 7-foot-6 center originally from Senegal, blocked a school- and conference-record 11 shots, while pulling down 10 rebounds. He had eight points to come up just shy of a triple-double.
The win gave UCI (15-9, 6-2 in conference), ranked No, 22 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major top-25 poll, its first regular-season sweep of its Black and Blue series rival in six seasons and extended its winning streak over The Beach to four. It also insured that the 'Eaters would awaken on Friday with at least a share of the Big West Conference lead. UCI entered Thursday in a three-way tie for first with Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, which visited Hawaii on Thursday in a game that began at 9 p.m.
A win by UCSB would put the Gauchos in a first-place tie with UCI. A UCSB loss would give UCI sole possession of first heading into Saturday's road clash at UC Davis.
Victory was hardly assured in a game that featured 10 tie scores and 11 lead changes.
The visitors (9-13, 5-3), who saw their four-game winning streak halted, took a 49-44 lead with 9:31 left. But they went scoreless the next 5:52, allowing UCI to take a 56-49 advantage. UCI's 12-0 run during that stretch included six points each by Nelson and senior Chris McNealy.
Nelson converted two steals into layups, the second with 4:41 left to put the hosts in good position and electrify the vocal home rooters.
But Nelson's game-breaking plays continued. After junior UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb pulled the 49ers within 58-57 with a three-pointer from the right corner with 1:25 left, Nelson, who is averaging 23 points the last three games to assume the team scoring lead, made a step-back 14-foot jumper from the left wing with Long Beach junior guard Mike Caffey in his face to put UCI up, 60-57 with 43 seconds remaining.
After the 49ers made a free throw, UCI turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, giving the visitors a chance to tie it with a three-pointer. But freshman reserve Travis Hammonds was called for traveling on the perimeter with seven seconds left, giving UCI possession.
Nelson was fouled on the ensuing inbounds play and made the first of a double-bonus free-throw situation to finalize the scoring.
Lamb missed a 29-foot three-point attempt from beyond the top of the key and time expired.
"Luke Nelson is on a little bit of a hot streak right now," UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "He's feeling good and the team is doing a good job of getting him the ball. His shot selection is great and the plays he made for us with his length at the top of our zone were as big as we had tonight."
Nelson finished 10 for 15 from the field and five of eight from threedom, while netting three of his four foul shots and collecting a game-high four steals.
Turner also praised Ndiaye, whose strong 29 minutes helped compensate for a sub-par return for junior Will Davis. Davis, who missed the previous two games with a back problem, had just two points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
"His performance was good on both ends," Turner said of Ndiaye, who now has 81 blocks, seven shy of matching Davis' school single-season record. "I'm really proud of him taking on a role as our defensive anchor. He was amazingly impactful tonight. Blocking 11 shots [one better than he did earlier this season at Washington] is phenomenal. You never see that. It's like scoring 50 points."
UCI held the 49ers to 33.8% shooting from the field (22 for 65) and is now 14-0 when holding the opponents under 40%. Lamb and Caffey were a combined six for 25 from the field (nine for 43 as a duo in the series).
In the first half, UCI used an 11-2 surge to claim a 13-8 advantage, but the 49ers answered with an 11-2 run of their own to pull ahead, 19-15.
Ultimately, it was Nelson's fourth three-pointer of the half, with nine seconds remaining, that pulled the Anteaters even at the break.