Senior guard Evan Leonard scored 22 points and senior forward Tommy Rutherford added 16 as first-place UC Irvine held off a late Cal Poly rally for an 82-76 Big West Conference victory Thursday night in front of a national television audience (ESPNU) as well as 2,703 fans inside Mott Athletics Center.
The visiting Anteaters (20-10, 12-2 Big West) made 64 percent of their floor shots, including seven of 15 from three-point range, for their fifth straight victory.
Cal Poly (7-21, 4-10 Big West), which erased an early nine-point UC Irvine lead, was led by freshman guard Colby Rogers and sophomore guard Junior Ballard, each with 13 points off the bench. Senior guard Job Alexander, who started, added 12 points.
UC Irvine, which clinched the top seed in the March 12-14 Big West Conference Tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim with Thursday’s win, led 18-9 in the opening eight minutes of the game, Cal Poly battled back to take a 28-26 lead with a 19-8 run capped by a three-pointer from Ballard with 6:44 to go in the first half.
UC Irvine produced a 10-0 run late in the first half for a 40-33 cushion, Rutherford scoring a fast-break layup with 1:06 to go, and the Anteaters took a 40-35 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Cal Poly caught UC Irvine at 47-47 on a hook shot by sophomore forward Tuukka Jaakkola with 16:24 to play in the game, but a layup by Leonard 26 seconds later gave the Anteaters the lead for good.
UC Irvine led by 12 points twice down the stretch before Cal Poly mounted its last rally, closing the gap to three at 77-74 on a fast-break layup and free throw by Ballard with 47 seconds left. The Anteaters made five of six free throws the rest of the way while the Mustangs could only muster a layup by Rogers, missing three other floor shots.
Cal Poly, which finished its home schedule with a 7-6 record under first-year head coach John Smith, the Mustangs’ second winning mark at home in the last five years, made 46 percent of its field goal attempts (30 of 66), including seven of 17 from long range.
UC Irvine outrebounded Cal Poly 32-26, led by John Edgar Jr. with six. Rogers, Ballard and Nolan Taylor each grabbed four caroms for Cal Poly.
Alexander, one of three Mustang seniors honored in a pregame ceremony, contributed five assists and his 12 points are a season high. The other seniors are graduate guard Jamal Smith and graduate wing Malek Harwell.
Cal Poly plays its final two Big West games on the road next week, visiting Long Beach State on Thursday night (ESPN3) and UC Santa Barbara on Saturday night.
-Provided by Cal Poly