IRVINE — Since the day he was announced as the UC Irvine men's basketball coach, Russell Turner has talked about wanting his team to be playing its best late in the season, when it matters most.
And while the Anteaters may still not be where Turner wants them, their ability to perform in the clutch in two games this week enabled them to earn their place in the Big West Conference Tournament.
The clinching win was a 97-86 double-overtime triumph over Big West visitor Pacific on Saturday.
UCI's second double-overtime win in three days (it outlasted UC Davis on Thursday) locked up a berth in the eight-team postseason conference tournament March 10-12 at Honda Center. The 'Eaters (13-17, 6-9 in conference) have one game left to determine their tournament seeding. They could be as anywhere from fifth to eighth.
But if the Anteaters are to maximize their remaining potential, they will need to eliminate their dramatic flair that saw them lose late leads to Pacific and UC Davis, only to eventually prevail.
Saturday, UCI squandered a 20-point lead, accumulated with 1:41 left in the first half, as the Tigers (16-12, 8-6) pulled even with the same three-point shooting formula that allowed UCI to create its cushion.
UCI led by four with five seconds left in regulation and held a three-point edge with 1.2 seconds left, only to see UOP force the extra session.
UCI was also up, 82-79, late in the first five-minute OT, only to see Allen Huddleston, who was zero for 11 from the field and had missed all seven of his three-point attempts to that point, connect on a three-pointer from the left wing with 4.4 seconds remaining to extend things yet again.
Huddleston, a 61.7% free-throw shooter coming into the game, sank three foul shots after being fouled on a desperation 35-foot three-point attempt with 1.2 seconds left in regulation, to knot the score at 77-77.
But despite twice allowing the Tigers to wriggle out of the fangs of defeat, UCI dominated the second overtime to send most of the final Bren Events Center crowd of the season home happy.
Junior Eric Wise led the winners with 25 points and 12 rebounds after coming off the bench due to a ceremonial all-senior starting lineup.
Wise, who had missed the six games prior to this week with a hamstring problem, amassed 48 points and 28 boards in his two return engagements.
Wise scored nine overtime points Saturday and had 21 post-regulation points in the two contests.
Senior Darren Moore also stepped up big late on his way to 21 points on eight-of-13 field-goal shooting. Moore, who had two points at halftime, scored UCI's first five points in the second overtime, during which UCI never trailed.
UCI, which drained nine of its first 13 three-point tries on its way to a 42-22 cushion, finished 11 of 26 from three-point range. UCI made a 14-0 run in a span of just more than three minutes to take a 36-19 advantage.
UOP, which made just three of its first 15 three-point tries and was four of 16 from beyond the arc at halftime, was 10 for 18 from threedom in the second half to chip away at the deficit.
UOP finished the first half on a 7-0 run.
A pair of three-pointers sparked another surge by the Tigers that cut the deficit to 59-56 with 9:09 left in regulation. And the visitors finally pulled even with 58 seconds left in regulation and continued to counter punch into the second OT.
"I knew they were going to make a run," Wise said. "I thought we would be able to hold onto it, but we didn't."
Turner said he is happy to have earned a postseason berth, though its on the one he ultimately wants for his program, which has never been to the NCAA Tournament.
"I know we're in the [Big West] tournament … but I don't want that to be the goal for our team," Turner said. "I don't want to qualify for the Big West Tournament, I want to win the Big West Tournament."
Daman Starring, who made four clutch free throws in the final 25 seconds of regulation, had 15 points for UCI, as did Mike Wilder.
UCI senior Patrick Rembert had 11 points and five assists.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 97, Pacific 86
UOP – Willard 12, Williams 5, Smith 23, Young 16, Huddleston 13, Rivera 12, Coley 5.
3-pt. goals – Young 4, Smith 4, Rivera 4, Willard 1, Huddleston 1, Coley 1.
Fouled out – Rivera, Smith.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Simek 0, Losonsky 2, Moore 21, Rembert 11, Kim 0, Wise 25, Starring 15, Wise 15, Strings 6, Flowers 2.
3-pt. goals – Wilder 4, Starring 3, Strings 2, Rembert 1, Wise 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 42-29.