It wasn't the one shining moment most college basketball coaches covet, but UC Irvine men's basketball head man Russell Turner said the celebration that followed his program's first Big West Conference regular-season title in 12 seasons was thoroughly appropriate.
Though the students didn't storm the court, the Anteaters' players, coaches and support staff cut down the nets. And players paraded about holding the conference championship trophy overhead, smiling, high-fiving and posing for pictures with fans.
"It's satisfying," said Turner, whose squad handled last-place UC Davis, 74-46, in front of 2,254 at the Bren Events Center to clinch the school's first outright regular-season crown since 2001. "I'm happy for these [players], especially Chris McNealy [a senior and one of Turner's first recruits who was honored before his final home game]. To win a championship in college basketball is not easy. It's special. And when you win, it changes who you are, when you accomplish a goal that's really difficult. So it was good to be a part of that. And that's fun."
But Turner, in his fourth season at the helm, was quick to acknowledge that winning the Big West Tournament that begins Thursday at Honda Center, is the only way his program can achieve the yet-to-be-attained goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
"The challenge before us in the coming week is a greater challenge," said Turner, whose top-seeded squad (22-10, 10-3 in conference), ranked No. 14 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, will face No. 8-seeded UC Riverside in one quarterfinal on Thursday at 6 p.m. "If we accomplish that challenge [by winning three games in three days] it will be even better. If we don't, it will be a huge disappointment. It's one of the things you learn in high-level athletic competition; you have to be willing to go for it. And, tonight, we went for it … Our goals are certainly greater than what we've accomplished. And the more we accomplish, the greater our goals will become."
The 'Eaters have twice failed to convert a regular-season title into Big West Tournament success. They were outright champions in 2001, and co-champions in 2002, only to bow out in the conference tournament semifinals both times. Only the 2000-01 team that was 25-5 and lost in the first round of the NIT, posted more victories than this year's UCI team in the program's 49-season history.
The latest victory came courtesy of the 'Eaters' growing trademark: defense. After building a 35-27 halftime lead despite shooting just 33.3% from the field, UCI held the Aggies (9-22, 4-12) to 18 points and a mere 14.8% from the field (four for 27) after intermission.
UC Davis finished at 26.4% for the game (14 for 53) to extend UCI's record when its opponent shoots 40% or worse to 20-0, 12-0 in conference play. UCI, which entered the game ranked No. 1 in the conference in field-goal-percentage defense (.387), used eight players to block 12 shots.
Junior Will Davis led four Anteaters in double figures with 14 points and he added a team-best nine rebounds.
McNealy, who joins only the legendary Jerry Green as players who rank in the top 20 in UCI annals in points (1,185), rebounds (512), three-pointers (129), steals (100) and assists (274), had 10 points.
Luke Nelson and Mike Best also had 10 points apiece, while Nelson had four assists and two steals.
"There were a lot of emotions," McNealy said of his senior night experience, which included a postgame moment with his supportive fraternity brothers and in-game chants from the crowd of "C-Mac."
"I came in knowing we had a chance to do something really special and I'm really happy about it," McNealy said. "I love all the fans in this community. They keep me going."
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 74, UC Davis 46
UCD – Funtarov 9, Dueck 0, Hawkins 9, Lemar 7, Johnson 4, Bozner 7, Sypkens 6, Graham 3, Betu 1.
3-pt. goals – Sypkens 2, Funtarov 1, Lemar 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Davis 14, Ndiaye 6, McNealy 10, Nelson 10, Young 0, Best 10, Wright 8, Ryan 6, Souza 5, McConnell 3, Dunning 2.
3-pt. goals – Nelson 2, McNealy 1, Souza 1, McConnell 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 35-28.