A weekend of rain signaled an end to the Southern California drought, but when it came to scoring, the Bren Events center men's basketball court was, at least for one half on Saturday, a veritale desert.
The host Anteaters showed the top defensive team in the conference a thing or two about denial on their way to a 55-48 victory over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that kept UCI in sole possession of first place with two regular-season conference games remaining.
The win gave UCI 20 wins for the second straight season. At 20-10, 11-3 in conference, Coach Russell Turner's squad maintains a one-game lead over UC Santa Barbara, which topped UC Davis Saturday. Long Beach State, which had been tied for second with UCSB, lost at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday to fall two games back.
"Our guys know we're playing for something that is meaningful for us and that's what you want to do in March," Turner said. "This was our first opportunity to play in March and we rose to the challenge. It wasn't pretty, 19-16 [in UCI's favor] at halftime. I'm not sure how that happened."
In the first half, Cal Poly made just four of 23 field-goal tries (16.7%) and its starting five were a combined zero for nine from the field. The Mustangs, who received just one first-half point from their starters, went the first 5:34 of the game without a field goal and endured the last 5:51 before intermission without scoring from anywhere but the free-throw line.
Cal Poly had eight free throws in the opening 20 minutes for half of its points. The 16 points allowed by the Anteaters, who lead the conference in field-goal-percentage defense, were the fewest in one half all season.
UCI, meanwhile, shot only 25% from the field in the first half, while sinking all four of its foul shots. The 19 points matches its season-low output for a half.
But both teams found more effectiveness after intermission.
Cal Poly, the Big West leader in scoring defense, made half of its 26 field-goal attempts in the final 20 minutes, but still finished at a mere 34% for the game (17 for 50).
Anything worse than 40% for the opponent has been the magic number for the Anteaters this season. UCI is now 18-0, including 10-0 in conference, when holding the opposition to less than 40% shooting.
UCI made 12 of 21 attempts after halftime (66.7%) to lift it to 42% field-goal shooting for the game. The Anteaters also had just three of their 13 turnovers in the second half.
But Cal Poly managed to knot the score at 34 with 12:18 left in the game, as part of a 9-2 run that created a 39-36 advantage for the visitors with 8:37 remaining.
But sophomore Alex Young answered with a three-pointer with 8:20 left to tie things and spark an 8-0 burst capped by five points from reserve Dominique Dunning, to put the hosts in the lead for good.
After Reese Morgan converted three free throws with 4:54 left, Chris McNealy nailed one of UCI's three three-pointers to push the lead back to five.
Young led the winners with 12 points, followed by 10 from 7-foot-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye. Ndiaye's three blocked shots give him 90 for the season, surpassing the school single-season record set last season by Will Davis.
Davis (nine points) had the clinching three-point play by converting a bullet pass from freshman Luke Nelson with a layup while being fouled with 16 seconds left.
McNealy had seven points and six rebounds, while Young and Nelson both had four assists.
Dunning had nine points and six boards off the bench and, Turner said, changed the team's mentality with his energy and toughness in 15 minutes.
UCI can clinch at least a share of its first Big West regular-season title since 2001-02 with a victory Thursday at Cal State Fullerton. The Anteaters finish the regular season at home against UC Davis on Saturday.