ANAHEIM, Calif. — UC Irvine finally cleared its Long Beach State hurdle Friday night, and landed in tonight's Big West Tournament championship game against Pacific.
Three times in the previous eight years (2005, 2006, 2012), the 49ers had stopped the Anteaters in the semifinals. And, leading by seven with 14:32 remaining, the Big West regular-season champions appeared poised to make it four in nine.
But the Anteaters' outside shots that misfired most of the evening at Honda Center finally started to fall, the defense tightened up and No. 1 seed Long Beach State's offense dried up as UC Irvine (20-14) rallied for a 67-60 victory.
It took big 3-pointers by reserve Travis Souza, senior James Wilder and freshman Alex Young to breathe life into UCI, and the last, with 3:40 left, gave the Anteaters the lead to keep at 54-53.
"I knew when we scored and got a stop, I knew we had the game in control," said Young, a Phoenix High graduate, who coolly led the Anteaters with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting.
UCI senior guard Daman Starring missed 9 of his first 10 shots, but drove for a basket with 2:06 left that gave the No. 4 seeded team a 57-53 lead. With 35.5 seconds left, Starring penetrated and passed to Will Davis II for a dunk, one of seven assists by the second-team all-conference guard.
But Starring's greatest contribution likely came with 3:57 left, when he drew a charge from Keala King, negating a basket and setting up Young's go-ahead 3-pointer.