Coach Russell Turner's squad fought to get into a position few expected them to approach, rallying from a 16-point second-half deficit to force overtime. Yet any consolation gained was ultimately washed down with disappointment as the Highlanders (14-16, 7-9 in conference) scored the first seven points of overtime and netted two free throws with 0:00.2 seconds left to ice the homecoming win in front of 2,185.
The loss drops the 'Eaters to 11-19, 6-10 and means they will be the No. 7 seed in the eight-team Big West Conference Tournament that begins Thursday at Honda Center. UCI, which is destined for its first 20-loss season since the 1998-99 campaign, will face No. 2-seeded Cal State Fullerton in a quarterfinal that will start approximately at 2:30 p.m.
Cal State Fullerton capped its regular season with a 77-74 home win Saturday to deny conference champion Long Beach State an unblemished Big West record. Fullerton has swept two meetings with UCI in conference play.
But UCI was picked to finish last in the nine-team conference and was among only nine of 338 Division I men's programs without a senior on its roster. After losing its first six games, it is 11-13 and it defeated four conference rivals, including sweeps of Cal State Northridge and UC Davis.
Five of its conference losses were by single-digit margins, including a three-point setback at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to go with Saturday's near-miss.
"I feel like our team has learned a lot this year," said Turner, in his second season at the helm. "I wish we had more to show in the win-loss column for all the lessons we've learned."
Freshman Travis Souza netted a three-pointer from near the top of the key with 4.4 seconds left in regulation to pull the 'Eaters even for the first and only time.
An eight-foot runner in the lane by junior Daman Starring cut the deficit to 61-59, with 13.3 seconds left and UCR senior Kareem Nitoto sank the first of two free throws with 10.6 ticks left to leave UCI an opening.
UCI, which trailed, 44-28, with 16:06 left in regulation, later used a 15-3 run to pull to within 55-54 with 3:52 left, as Souza capped the run with a three-pointer from the right corner.
The hosts' lone field-goal in overtime came in the opening 11 seconds, as Robert Smith converted a layup while being fouled. UCR, which missed 11 of 31 foul shots in regulation, sank eight of nine in overtime, as a pair of three-pointers by junior Derick Flowers proved too little too late for the visitors.
UCI was eight for 29 from three-point range (27.6%). But it also missed 10 layups and had two other point-blank shots blocked to help finish 24 for 64 from the field (37.5%). UCI had 14 turnovers to UCR's nine, but won the rebounding battle, 48-38, and held the Highlanders to 37.7% field-goal shooting (20 for 53).
Sophomore Chris McNealy led UCI with 19 points, making eight of 13 from the field, including three of seven from three-point distance. He added a team-best four assists.
Junior Adam Folker had 10 points and 10 rebounds, but was three of 10 from the field and four of eight from the foul line.
Flowers had 15 points, three assists and only two turnovers in 44 minutes.
"It's a tough environment to play in and our guys came and fought," Turner said. "I guess I've got to be happy with that. But it's hard to be happy with a loss. Nobody in our locker room is."
Senior Phil Martin led the winners with 27 points.
Big West Conference
UC Riverside 72, UC Irvine 69 (OT)
UCI – Wilder 9, Folker 10, McNealy 19, Flowers 15, Starring 9, Souza 4, Davis 2, Best 1.
3-pt. goals – McNealy 3, Flowers 2, Wilder 1, Souza 1, Starring 1.
Fouled out – Wilder.
Technicals – None.
UCR – Shearry 5, Berry 0, Martin 27, Nitoto 13, Harrison 9, Smith 11, Quick 4, Cowlah 3.
3-pt. goals – Martin 2, Nitoto 1, Smith 1.
Fouled out – Shearry.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – 36-26, UCR.
Regulation – 62-62.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun