ANAHEIM — A combination of locking down, then closing out produced the most important win of UC Irvine men's basketball coach Russell Turner's two-season tenure on Thursday.
The No. 7-seeded Anteaters, who had not beaten a Division I team with a winning record this season, upset No. 2-seeded Cal State Fullerton, 65-59, in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament at Honda Center.
UCI (12-19), which had not opened the conference tournament with a victory since 2008, had lost six of seven previous postseason meetings with the Titans and had allowed 192 combined points in two regular-season losses to Fullerton this season, outperformed the most productive offense in the conference.
The Anteaters, who meet regular-season champion Long Beach State in Friday's semifinals at 6:30 p.m., led by as many as 13 and never trailed to eliminate the Titans (21-9), who were still glowing from a home upset win over Long Beach State on Saturday.
Fullerton, which had shot 62.5% combined from three-point range in two previous meetings with UCI, including 10 for 10 from junior guard D.J. Seeley and six for eight by junior Kwame Vaughn, were held to 25% shooting beyond the arc (five for 20).
Seeley, who scored 27 in each of the two previous meetings, scored all 12 of his points after halftime. He was four of 13 from the field and missed all four of his three-point tries.
Vaughn was one for four from threedom, while Fullerton guard Isaiah Umipig and reserve Perry Webster were a combined one for eight from three-point range.
Meanwhile, UCI hit its first four three-point tries and five of its first six. The 'Eaters finished 10 of 22 from beyond the arc (45.5%, which was only slightly worse than their 46.9% from the field, 23 for 49).
Sophomore Chris McNealy sank four of seven three-point tries to help him record a career-high 24 points for the winners. Juniors Mike Wilder, Derick Flowers and Daman Starring made six of 11 three-point attempts between them.
"Let's make it clear, they beat us [previously] because they made more threes than we did," Turner said of the Titans, whose previous season-low scoring output was 60 points at Wichita State on Dec. 1. "Tonight, we made more threes than them."
Turner said the use of a zone defense and a commitment to deny Seeley the ball helped UCI makeover its previously porous perimeter defense against Fullerton. Turner also said UCI slowed the pace of the game, hoping not to get burned by easy Fullerton baskets in transition.
"That's one of the best offensive teams in the league and they [have been] playing really well," Turner said. "We had to throw them off rhythm and I thought we did that a little bit. And then, our guys showed a lot of character and courage to close out a close game."
After leading 29-16, UCI settled for a 29-21 edge at halftime. Fullerton pared the deficit to 35-32 with 14:03 left, but threes by Wilder and Flowers on consecutive possessions helped UCI regain a cushion.
Two three-pointers by Orane Chin (who netted three of four three-point tries on his way to a team-best 20 points) helped Fullerton close to within 53-51, but McNealy connected for three from the right corner with 4:31 left.
UCI also made seven of eight foul shots in the final minute to prevail.
"They just came in and did an absolutely terrific job against us in all facets of the game," Titans Coach Bob Burton said. "If I hadn't been coaching Fullerton, I would have been sitting there rooting for [the 'Eaters] because of how hard their kids play and how tough they were. They were really deserving of this [win]."
Adam Folker had 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Wilder and Flowers had 11 points each. Those three had each played in two of UCI's three tournament-opening losses the last three seasons.
"[The win] means a lot to me, personally and for this team, it's huge," Folker said. "We're going to build off this. We have a really young team [seven freshmen and no seniors], so it's great for our guys to get past the first round."
"There haven't been many of them , so why not?" Turner said when asked if this was his most important win at UCI. "We said we want to be at our best in March. Now, we want to focus on what we have to do [Friday] to win against whoever we play."
Fullerton's Omondi Amoke had 21 rebounds to set a conference-tournament record.
Big West Tournament quarterfinal
UC Irvine 65, Cal State Fullerton 59
UCI – Wilder 11, Folker 10, McNealy 24, Flowers 11, Starring 5, Davis 2, Best 2.
3-pt. goals – McNealy 4, Wilder 3, Flowers 2, Starring 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CSF – Chin 20, Amoke 10, Seeley 12, Vaughn 12, Umipig 2, Webster 3.
3-pt. goals – Chin 3, Vaughn 1, Webster 1.
Fouled out – Seeley.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – 29-21 UCI.