IRVINE — Not even the fossil, 24-year-old senior Daman Starring, was alive the last time UC Irvine won a national postseason men's basketball game.
But Starring and the rest of the Anteaters broke that string on Wednesday, outlasting High Point of North Carolina, 80-71, in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in front of 368 at Crawford Court.
UCI sophomore Will Davis exploded for a career-high 32 points and added 14 rebounds to pace the winners (21-15), who will play an opponent to be determined, most likely on Sunday, in the event for which a 16-team bracket will now be composed.
UCI earned its 10th straight home win, and the 21 wins are tied for third in school single-season history. It's the most wins since the 2000-2001 squad went 25-5.
UCI's last national postseason triumph was an 80-74 upset at UCLA in the 1986 NIT.
The Anteaters have never won two games in a national postseason tournament, and this marked only their third triumph in seven opportunities as a Division I program. They will get that chance after surviving a second-half rally by the visiting Panthers (17-14).
After UCI extended a 37-29 halftime advantage to 10 points , the Panthers surged to a 53-52 lead with 9:44 left.
But Starring answered with a three-pointer and Davis, who was 13 of 18 from the field, made a pair of follow shots to put the 'Eaters up, 59-55.
The next two UCI field goals were three-pointers — by Starring and Chris McNealy — and after Devante Wallace netted a three-pointer to pull the Panthers within 66-65 with 4:23 left, UCI's defense took over down the stretch.
High Point managed just one field goal in the last 4:22 and the hosts made eight of nine foul shots in the final 3:36 to prevail.
McNealy and Starring had 11 points apiece, while freshman point guard Alex Young had 10 for the winners.
But Davis, whose biggest contribution is usually defense (he has 141 career blocked shots, just eight away from the school record in just 66 games), was the breakout star on offense.
"The way that they defended, gave [Davis] an opportunity to make some plays with a ton of [pick and] rolls and I thought our passers made some easy plays for him." UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "When you get that feeling and some shots are going in, it's easier to continue. But I thought he did a good job of playing with intensity in both halves."
Davis, who did not have a blocked shot Wednesday, said his offensive outburst, more productive than anyone on the current roster has ever had in a UCI uniform, is something he can take into next season.
"During the off-season, I wanted to work on my offensive skills," said Davis, who came in averaging 8.9 points per game. "Because I think my defense is there. So, this is just a kick-start for next year."
Turner , who coached his 100th game at the UCI helm, said the victory is noteworthy.
"The postseason win is big for us," Turner said. "Any opportunity to play and to add wins to the legacy of these seniors are going to leave is big. I don't think we played our best tonight, but we did fight hard and dug down and made the plays you have to make in order to string wins together. That's how you can define yourself as a winning team, so that's a big accomplishment for these guys."
Turner credited the athletic administration, specifically Athletic Director Mike Izzi, for "going the extra mile" to land a home game in the opening round of the tournament.
Turner had expected to play the first round on the road.
UC Irvine 80, High Point 71
HPU – Chaney 16, Law 11, Weary 18, McGaughy 6, Edwards 2, Wallace 9, Miculic 5, Cugini 4.
3-pt. goal – Wallace 3, Weary 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCI – McNealy 11, Davis 32, Starring 11, Young 10, Wilder 5, Wright 5, Ryan 4, Souza 2.
3-pt. goal – Starring 3, McNealy 2, WIlder 1.
Fouled out – McNealy.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 37-29.