ANAHEIM, Calif. --- Senior guards Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson scored 19 points each to lead top-seeded UC Irvine over No. 8 seed UC Riverside, 76-67, in a Big West Conference Tournament quarterfinal at the Honda Center Thursday night.
The victory marked the 20th of the season for Coach Russell Turner's Anteaters (20-13), who have recorded 20 victories in five consecutive years.
UCI, the Big West regular-season champion (12-4), has won 15 of its last 19 games entering a Friday night (6:30) semifinal against Long Beach State.
With his first basket of the night at the 16:33 mark of the first half, Martin became the 27th player in UCI history to score 1,000 career points.
The All-Big West first-team selection scored 17 of his points in the second half, including eight in a six-minute span to slow a Highlander rally. Martin was 7 of 13 from the field in the game, hitting 6 of 8 shots in the final 20 minutes. He added five rebounds and three assists in the victory.
Nelson, the Big West Player of the Year, scored 14 of his points in the first half as the Anteaters took a 38-28 lead at the break.
Nelson, who also had five assists and five rebounds, passed Kevin Magee on the Anteaters' all-time scoring list and now ranks seventh with 1,486. He has 400 career assists to rank fifth in UCI history.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds for the 'Eaters, marking the seventh time in the last 12 games he has registered double-digit boards and ninth time this season. Five of his rebounds Thursday evening were off the offensive glass. Galloway scored eight points in the quarterfinal win.
Senior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos and freshman forward Tommy Rutherford scored six points apiece while sophomore forward Brandon Smith added five points and five boards. Freshman guard Eyassu Worku also scored five points.
Secean Johnson led the Highlanders (7-21) with 22 points while Dikymbe Martin added 12.
UCI scored seven of the second half's first 10 points to go up 45-31 on a three by Nelson with 17:01 left, but UCR scored eight straight to cut the deficit to 45-39 on a trey by Gentrey Thomas with 15:38 remaining.
The 'Eaters extended their lead to 10 at 53-43 on a basket by Rutherford with 11:56 left, but the Highlanders answered with seven unanswered points to pull within 53-50 on back-to-back baskets from Johnson, the last with 9:37 remaining.
A 13-6 run by UCI over the next five minutes pushed the Anteater lead to 66-56 with 4:45 left and UCI led by at least eight the remainder of the game.
The 'Eaters hit 17 of 19 free throws in the game and shot 44.3 percent from the field to 40.7 percent for the Highlanders. UCI had a 45-28 advantage on the boards.
"I'm pleased with the win for our team and credit to Riverside," Turner said. "They are a difficult team to play and that really came through tonight. I have a lot of respect for the coaching staff and those players, especially Secean Johnson. Those guys were well prepared and made things hard for us. We're just happy to escape with the win.
"That was the type of game we were expecting in the tournament," Turner continued. "We didn't shoot the three well in the game, so we had a hard time making an offensive run. Credit goes to them. We did defend, though, and we did rebound. We're going to win ugly a lot of nights."