IRVINE — During the final media timeout at UC Irvine home men's basketball games, cheer squad members hand out small candy bars to commemorate "crunch time." And, in what has become a rarity this season, the Anteaters managed to avoid a sour taste by prevailing down the stretch.
After Big West Conference co-leader Hawaii took a 57-56 advantage in a seesaw struggle at UCI on Wednesday, the hosts, who were 0-6 in games decided by six or fewer points coming in, scored 11 of the next 12 points to help secure a 68-64 victory.
The win snaps a two-game conference losing streak and lifts UCI (8-9, 2-2 in conference) to 5-1 at home this season.
Hawaii (9-6, 3-1), which was off to its best conference start in 11 seasons, lost its inaugural road game in the Big West. The Rainbow Warriors also lost for the second time in two tries on the Mainland this season.
Two free throws by senior Daman Starring with 52 seconds left capped the aforementioned 11-1 run to give the Anteaters a 67-58 cushion.
They almost needed that advantage as Hawaii scored five points in five seconds to pull within 67-63, with 29 seconds left.
But UCI, which won its last conference home game over UC Davis by scoring all 11 points of overtime, managed to hold on for the win.
Junior Chris McNealy had 15 points off the bench to pace the winners, who received 13 points from sophomore Will Davis, 12 points from Starring and 10 from freshman Alex Young. McNealy also added six rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes.
Senior Adam Folker had a team-best 12 rebounds for UCI, which lost the battle on the glass, 46-35.
UCI shot 52.2% from the field in the second half (12 for 23), including four of seven from three-point range (57.1%) to overcome a 31-28 halftime deficit in a game that featured 11 ties and 21 lead changes.
UCI made nine of 25 three-point attempts, while Hawaii connected on seven of 20.
UCI made 12 of 17 foul shots in the final 20 minutes, while Hawaii was 15 of 19 from the line for the game. UCI shot just two free throws in the opening half, making one.
Davis made six of eight field-goal attempts.
Wilder was three for 11 from the field, but chipped in five assists, four steals and four rebounds to help UCI claim a pivotal win.
Senior Derick Flowers (five points) and freshman Conor Clifford (five rebounds) also contributed off the bench for UCI, which won the bench scoring battle, 21-15.
UCI also had all six of the game's fast-break points and collected 21 points off turnovers, to the Rainbow Warriors' nine.
Hawaii used an 11-0 run late in the first half to claim a 31-23 lead, before UCI netted the final five points of the half to pull within three at halftime.
UCI made just 11 of 36 field-goal attempts in the opening half (30.6%), while Hawaii was only marginally better, sinking 10 of 30 attempts (33.3%).
It was UCI's fourth straight win over Hawaii.
UCI plays host to Cal State Northridge on Saturday at 4 p.m. for its homecoming.