Anaheim, CA– The UC Irvine Anteaters (30-5) won the Big West Cinference Tournament title and are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history. The Anteaters defeated their crosstown rival Cal State Fullerton (16-17), 92-64.
The victory marks not only the largest margin of victory in the Big West Tournament championship game, but the Anteaters got their revenge on the Titans after falling to them in the conference title game this time last year. Irvine played as if they waited the entire year to get their moment of redemption against this team.
This was a game that the Anteaters were in control of from the opening tip. Irvine started the game with an 13-4 lead thanks to an 11-0 scoring run. Nine of Irvine’s 11 unanswered points would be scored from behind the arc from junior guard Max Hazzard, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Hazzard would finish the game with 23 points and contributed on five of the Anteaters 10 three-pointers.
“I’m just happy to be part of something bigger than myself,” Hazzard stated.
Fullerton head coach called a timeout to try to steer his team in the right direction. However, the energy from Irvine would not let up as the would continue the onslaught. The Anteaters would shut down the Titans and hold them scoreless for much of that first half and held them to 41 percent shooting in the game.
UC Irvine entered the halftime break up 18, (42-24) and knew that they had the game on lock.
While Irvine was absolutely on fire from downtown, shooting tournament record 71 percent, Fullerton couldn’t cash in from the great beyond. The Titans would miss their first eight three-point attempts to begin the half and finished the game shooting a frigid 23 percent from beyond-the-arc.
Outstanding lockdown defense was the name of the game for the Anteaters in this blowout victory. The Anteaters made sure to keep an eye on Titan guard Khalil Ahmad, who came into the contest averaging 30 points in tournament play. Ahmad would be a non-factor in the contest as he wouldn’t score his first field goal until the second half.
Instead, the Titans would look to Kyle Allman Jr. to carry the scoring load for Cal State Fullerton. He finished with 16 and got help from teammate Austen Awosika, who contributed 13 points and four boards.
Not only did the Anteaters shoot well and play tenacious defense but their rotations were on point and the coaches were consistently repeating scouting report notes during the game. Defensively, the Titans tried to fight through screens but somehow communication was lost in translation. The chemistry felt somewhat off compared to the cohesiveness displayed by the Irvine’s squad.
Everything just seemed to go right for Irvine, who also got a spectacular performance from red-shirt freshman big man Collin Welp. He pitched in 23 points of his own to match Hazzard. The two would link up in the contest with Hazzard dropping a sweet dime to Welp for an and-one play. Welp’s patience and skill was impressive all throughout the ballgame.
Robert Cartwright and Even Leonard also came up big for UC Irvine, each having 10 points apiece. In addition, Cartwright would hit timely basket to help extend the lead and complete Irvine’s revenge against Fullerton.
Irvine would be up by as many as 31 with just over 10 minutes left in regulation, finishing the game shooting 61 percent from the field and enjoyed a comfortable 28-point victory to cap off their regular season with bragging rights as the Big West champs, 92-64. The 28-point margin is the largest in a Big West title game.
UC Irvine stands at 30-5 on the year and will entere the NCAA tournament with a school record 16-game win streak. With the victory, the Anteaters punch their ticket into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Many expected a good game and could argue that it was surprising to see the final outcome of the contest. Well… except one person.
“It was nothing about what we did tonight that surprised me,” said head coach Russell Turner.
UC Irvine waits to find out its NCAA Tournament opponent which will be announced Sunday afternoon.
The other players included on the All-Tournament Team
Evan Leonard (UCI)
Collin Welp (UCI
Khalil Ahmad (CSF)
Kyle Allman Jr (CSF)
Deishuan Booker (Long Beach State).