UC Irvine's Dominique Dunning, left, and Alex Young celebrate a 71-60 win over UC Santa Barbara in a Big West Conference game on Thursday.

UC Irvine's Dominique Dunning, left, and Alex Young celebrate a 71-60 win over UC Santa Barbara in a Big West Conference game on Thursday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / February 28, 2014)

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The dream is nearing reality for the UC Irvine men's basketball team, just the way the Anteaters have learned to envision their season — one game at a time.

As games go, none yet this season was bigger than Thursday's Big West Conference affair, pitting UCI against conference co-leader UC Santa Barbara.

The Anteaters (19-10, 10-2 in conference), competing for their first conference regular-season crown since the 2001-02 season, moved a step closer with a 71-60 victory in front of 2,680 at Bren Events Center.

With three regular-season conference games left — Saturday at home against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Thursday at Cal State Fullerton and March 8 at home against UC Davis — UCI has a one-game lead on both UCSB (18-8, 9-4) and Long Beach State, which topped Hawaii on Thursday.

Senior Chris McNealy led the winners, ranked No. 22, nine spots behind the Gauchos in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, with 17 points. He made all five of his field-goal attempts and both of his three-pointers, while adding four rebounds and two assists. He was also five for five from the free-throw line.

"The atmosphere was really great," said McNealy, who helped his team avenge an 80-60 drubbing in Santa Barbara on Jan. 30. "It was two of the top teams in the league trying to get the No. 1 spot. I was hitting shots, picking my spots and luckily they were going in."

Junior Will Davis, who missed all six of his first-half field-goal attempts, was four for eight in the second half on his way to 14 points. He added eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots and was particularly productive down the stretch. He was at the center of things at both ends after 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye fouled out with 1:49 remaining.

Ndiaye, who played just six minutes after intermission due to foul trouble, finished with 11 points and six rebounds, and was credited with only one of his two blocked shots. He was four for five from the field and made all three of his foul shots, a feat since he came in having made just 38% of his free throws.

Davis and Ndiaye, as well as a defensive game plan designed to limit Gauchos' super post Alan Williams, did just that. Williams, who came in averaging 22.5 points and an NCAA-best 12 rebounds per contest, had 15 points (third-fewest this season), six rebounds and four turnovers. Williams, who came in shooting 54.3% from the field, made five of 12. He also made just five of nine from the foul line.

UCI Coach Russell Turner was pleased with his team's wire-to-wire focus and intensity, something he deemed lacking in a surprising loss Saturday at Cal State Northridge.

"We wanted to rise to this challenge," Turner said. "[The Gauchos] beat us up pretty good at their place and we respect these guys. We knew we needed to be ready and I thought we were. I thought from the beginning of both halves, we were competing the right way and we were able to sustain that."

Davis, who did not play in losses the last two seasons at UCSB, was obviously pleased with the outcome Thursday.

"It feels good to get a win against UC Santa Barbara this year," he said.

UCI held a 29-27 lead after eight lead changes and four deadlocks in the first 20 minutes. The Anteaters, who have won 12 of their last 15 and are 5-1 at home in conference play, scored the first five points of the second half and never trailed.

UCSB twice tied it, at 41-41 and 50-all, the latter on the third of four three-pointers by Edison High product Kyle Boswell (14 points).

But McNealy followed with a short jumper, then a Davis dunk led to a three-point play. Following a UCSB bucket, Ndiaye sank a six-foot jump hook, then followed a Davis miss to put the hosts up, 59-52, with 4:52 left.

UCSB was held scoreless the final 2:27 and UCI, which shot just 30.4% from the field before halftime, shot 58.3% the rest of the way (14 for 24) to prevail.

"It's not a two-team race," Turner said. "It's going to come down to the wire … Our team has been ready to play more consistently than everybody else and that's why we're ahead."

Big West Conference