Needing to win to stay alive in the Big West Conference regular-season championship race, UC Irvine got its usual strong contributions from Jerry Green and Jordan Harris against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Thursday night.
But it was sophomore Matt Okoro who provided the surprising spark in the Anteaters' 77-63 victory before 2,273 at the Bren Center. The reserve forward had a season-high 10 points in 25 minutes to help Irvine (19-8, 12-4) pull within a half-game of idle Utah State with two games remaining.
Green had 23 points and seven assists and Harris added 19 points and 10 rebounds. But the talk was all about Okoro, who played a key role in the Anteaters' surge after leading by one at halftime.
"Matt Okoro was a big spark obviously," Irvine Coach Pat Douglass said. "We've been hoping he'd get more relaxed out there. We've been having high expectations for him and all season he's been a little tight."
Okoro helped trigger a decisive 13-0 run early in the second half. After Harris' three-point basket broke a 39-39 tie, Okoro dunked a missed shot by Adam Parada. Green then set up the forward for a layup and another dunk and the Anteaters suddenly had a 52-39 lead.
"When you see Matt doing that stuff, it gets the fans crazy and brings us more in focus," Harris said. "It gets us more juiced."
Irvine shut down Cal Poly (14-9, 8-7) in the second half. The Mustangs made only seven field goals and shot 26.9%. Varnie Dennis and Brandon Beeson were held to eight points after combining for 24 in the first half. Beeson had only six of his 21 points after halftime and Dennis was held to only two after scoring nine in the first half.
Long Beach State 77, UC Santa Barbara 74--The 49ers (11-16, 7-9) scored eight consecutive points to erase a four-point deficit with three minutes to play, then made four of six free throws in the waning moments and upset the Gauchos (15-9, 9-6) in a heated game before 1,912 at the Pyramid.
Ron Johnson had 18 points and Travis Reed added 15 for the 49ers, but Cody Pearson was key with nine rebounds, seven offensively.
Santa Barbara, which got a three-pointer from Branduinn Fullove with four seconds to play to pull within 76-74, had a chance to tie at the end, but an attempted buzzer-beater by Jacoby Atako missed bounced off the front of the rim.
After the physical game, which included a technical foul on Adama Ndiaye of Santa Barbara and an intentional foul on Long Beach's Kevin Roberts, tempers flared and a shoving match broke out. Players converged, but no punches were thrown.
Mark Hull led Santa Barbara with 21 points.
CS Northridge 73, UC Riverside 64--Ian Boylan scored 25 points and Markus Carr broke out of a shooting slump and scored 18 as the Matadors (9-15, 8-7) ended a five-game losing streak before 588 at Riverside.
Boylan, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Norman, Okla., made nine of 13 shots, including four of six three-pointers to help Northridge win for the first time since Jan. 26, when the Matadors defeated Riverside, 84-69, at Northridge.
"That's one of the best games we've ever had a freshman play here," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "He carried us."
Carr, who had made only three of 23 shots in the previous two games while nursing a toe injury, made seven of 10 shots against Riverside.
Ted Bell led Riverside (8-15, 5-10) with 19 points.
Pacific 67, Cal State Fullerton 61-- The Titans (4-20, 1-14) stumbled through their eighth consecutive loss before 1,521 at Titan Gym, falling behind, 7-0, after the first three minutes and remaining in single digits until five minutes remained in the first half.
The Titans managed to cut an 18-point deficit to six with 1:20 left, but could get no closer.
With Babacar Camara getting in early foul trouble and forward Josh Fischer sidelined for the season because of a heart condition, Fullerton went mostly with a four-guard lineup. Senior guard David Castleton, who missed six conference games because of academic deficiencies, played 22 minutes for Fullerton, the most since the season opener against Pepperdine, and scored a season-high nine points. Pape Sow led the Titans with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Mike Preston and McLemore had 17 points each to lead Pacific (16-9, 8-7).