UC-Irvine fans celebrate with center John Ryan, left, and swingman Michael… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
The school with the funny nickname is 40 minutes from becoming no joke.
UC Irvine had a great coach once in Bill Mulligan. The school has produced a roster of star players that includes Kevin Magee, Ben McDonald and Scott Brooks.
The mighty Anteaters, however, have never needled their noses into an NCAA field.
Irvine is now on that special brink after Friday night's 67-60 win over top-seeded Long Beach State at the Honda Center. The victory put the Anteaters into Saturday's Big West Tournament championship game against Pacific.
The Anteaters are 0-3 in conference title games after losing NCAA chances in 1988, 1994 and 2008.
Irvine (20-14) split two games with Long Beach this year, but Friday's win has to be considered a significant program upset over a team that has won three straight Big West regular-season titles.
"They had the player of the year and the coach of the year, and deservedly so," third-year Irvine Coach Russell Turner said of Long Beach. "But tonight we had the better team."
It was tough to argue.
Fourth-seeded Irvine overcame all kinds of obstacles to pull out the win. The Anteaters went to halftime thinking they had a four-point lead after what everyone thought was a long three-pointer by Daman Starring to beat the buzzer.
After a lengthy review, however, the officials ruled the shot clock had expired before the shot, negated the basket, and called both teams out of their locker rooms to finish the last .8 of the half.
It looked like a momentum-killer when Long Beach emerged from the half and jumped to a seven-point lead at 43-36.
Irvine caught a huge break, though, when Long Beach star James Ennis was sent to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 14:19 remaining.
That allowed Irvine the comeback opening it needed. Alex Young's three-pointer with 3:41 left finally pushed the Anteaters into a 54-53 lead. Starring then made one of two free throws and soon after put Irvine up by four with a driving layup.
It was only Starring's second basket after missing nine of his previous 10 attempts. Starring later fed Will Davis for a jarring jam with 39 seconds left. That put the Anteaters up by six and pretty much started the celebration.
It didn't hurt Irvine's cause that Long Beach's Ennis fouled out with 1:08 left.
Irvine has no true star player. Three Anteaters scored in double figures, led by Young's 18. Starring had an off night shooting but contributed seven assists, three steals and four rebounds. The Anteaters succeed with unselfish offense and swarming intimidation.
"It just came down to the defensive end, as it always does for us," Young said.
Young's coach thought the key was his team committing only seven turnovers under tournament pressure. That forced athletic Long Beach to become a half-court team.
"We didn't turn it over," Turner said. "If you don't turn it over, Long Beach can't run."
Long Beach leaves the tournament with a 19-13 record but earns an automatic bid into the National Invitation Tournament by virtue of winning the Big West regular-season title.
It seemed little consolation for two sullen 49ers seniors at the postgame podium, Ennis and Peter Pappageorge. They were both contributors to last year's run to the NCAA tournament.
"That's probably the biggest disappointment," Pappageorge said. "We tasted it last year. We knew how good it is."
Long Beach claimed the regular-season title again but seemed vulnerable all year as it tried to piece together a team that lost four key seniors.
"We never got consistent enough to win three games in a row," Coach Dan Monson said. "Today was a microcosm of our season."
Keala King and Tony Freeland led Long Beach with 15 points, while Mike Caffey added 14.
Pacific 55, Cal Poly: 53: Travis Fulton made a put-back shot with one second left to lift second-seeded Pacific into the championship game. The Tigers will face UC Irvine.Tony Gill led Pacific (21-12) with 20 points while Chris Eversley led Cal Poly (18-13) with 12.