IRVINE — Though the UC Irvine men's basketball team has no seniors this season, it found a team it could pull seniority on Thursday night.
Sophomore Chris McNealy scored 13 of his game-high 16 points after halftime and continually hit big shots down the stretch.
And freshman Travis Souza came off the bench cold to hit a clutch three-pointer when the score was tied, 53-53, with 3:56 left.
The win was the third straight for UCI (9-13, 5-4 in conference) and extended the losing streak for UC Davis to 17 games. The Aggies, under first-year coach and former NBA player Jim Les are 1-20, 0-9.
But the Aggies, who have one senior in their eight-player rotation, went toe-to-toe with the Anteaters until the final four minutes.
With 6:02 left, the Aggies led, 52-48, creating an uncomfortable lull among most of the 858 in attendance.
But Souza, who was two for two from three-point range for six points in nine minutes, connected from the right wing just seconds after being inserted into the game to put UCI up, 56-53.
After a Daman Starring steal at the other end, McNealy converted a Will Davis offensive rebound into the second of his three three-pointers to up the lead to six with 2:58 left.
While Davis went more than 5:30 without a field goal, UCI built a 61-53 advantage and held on down the stretch, despite some shaky free-throw shooting.
UCI missed half of its final 16 foul shots and finished 14 for 28 from the line.
UC Davis cut the deficit to 62-56 with 1:41 remaining, but, after the two teams traded free throws, McNealy connected again from beyond the arc with three seconds left on the 35-second shot clock to give the 'Eaters a 65-56 cushion with 55 seconds left.
"Chris McNealy [who had a career-high 17 points in a 70-55 win at Davis on Jan. 7] made some key shots and Travis Souza was really clutch," UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "I put him in for one play and the ball comes right to him and he drills it. That's a guy who wants to play and show he belongs here."
Turner also praised junior Adam Folker, who after a scoreless first half, made UCI's first three second-half field goals and finished with 11 points and a team-best eight rebounds.
"[Folker] raised his level in the second half after struggling in the first half," said Turner, who credited his team's defensive effort down the stretch for bringing home the win.
"The story of this game and the story of this team right now for me is that we've been able to raise our level in the last six, five or four minutes of the game defensively to get stops and give ourselves a chance to win. That's what we did tonight. We're showing some collective toughness."
The game featured seven ties and seven lead changes.
UCI made just two of its first 14 second-half field-goal attempts to see a 32-28 halftime lead disappear.
UC Davis posted a 43-34 advantage in rebounds, but lost the turnover battle, 17-12.
UCI had a 23-8 edge in points off turnovers.