ANAHEIM, California — When coach Russell Turner crossed the continents to recruit English guard Luke Nelson to get him to become an integral part of what he was building at UC Irvine, he said all the right things.
The Anteaters had never advanced to the NCAA Tournament in the first 38 years of the school's basketball program, but Nelson and his teammates made it happen Saturday night with a 67-58 victory over Hawaii in the Big West championship game.
"That was one of the things that really drew me to coming here, the fact that I could be a part of school history and doing something special at Irvine that no other team has done here before," said Nelson, who led the way with 17 points. "I came here with that as my goal. That was something that Coach pushed to me. We came close to it last year, my freshman year."
The Anteaters (21-12) lost all four previous times they went to the Big West title game (1988, 1994, 2008 and 2013). They were the top seed in the tournament last year, but lost in the semifinals to Cal Poly. This long-awaited moment was equally satisfying for freshmen Will Davis II and Travis Souza, who were high school teammates in New Hampshire for a year after playing summer ball together for two years.
"It's kind of hard to describe the feeling. It's unbelievable," Souza said. "We knew how hard we've worked over the last four years here, and Luke for the last two. And knowing we're the first team here to do it ... I mean, we went to the finals two years ago and lost. So we knew what that heartbreak felt like. And knowing the other side of it now, it's a phenomenal feeling."
Davis, the tournament MVP, had 10 points and 10 rebounds for his third straight double-double.
"This was my last chance, so I felt like this was the year we had to make it because there was no other option," he said. "We came out and played our hearts out every night, and tonight we ended up victorious."
Irvine made six of eight free throws in the final 51 seconds before Davis II put the punctuation mark on it with a tomahawk dunk with 6.6 seconds to go.
Aaron Valdes scored 17 points for Hawaii (22-12), 14 of them in the first half to pace the Rainbow Warriors to a 33-29 lead at intermission.
Valdes' layup in the final minute of the opening half came after Alex Young's 3-pointer capped an 11-2 run that sliced Irvine's 11-point deficit to 31-29 with 1:04 left on the clock.
The Anteaters tied the score four times during the first 7:34 of the second half, but didn't take their first lead of the game until Ioannis Dimakopoulos made a short hook shot over Stefan Jovanovic in the lane to put Irvine ahead 41-39 with 11:02 remaining.
Hawaii's Roderick Bobbitt, the Big West defensive player of the year, stole the ball from Nelson near midcourt and drove the rest of the way for a layup that tied the score at 43 with 9 minutes left. It was Bobbitt's 100th steal of the season, making him the fourth player in Big West history to accomplish the feat.
The Anteaters and Rainbow Warriors combined for 10 3-pointers in the first half, but neither team made one in the second half until Valdes connected from the left elbow to trim Irvine's lead to 52-50 with 3:03 to play. Nelson and Hawaii's Garrett Nevels then traded 3-pointers 17 seconds apart, leaving the Anteaters ahead 59-55 with 1:05 left.
But that was as close as Hawaii got. The Warriors didn't make a field goal the rest of the way.
"These guys have been through a lot, and we made it a nice year," Hawaii coach Benjy Taylor said. "We're disappointed about tonight, but we won't be broken by this. We've got a lot of young guys and we'll get better. We'll bounce back. I'm confident of that. It just hurts right now."
Hawaii: The women's team lost its championship game to Cal State Northridge, 67-60. Only two schools in Big West Tournament history have won the men's and women's bracket in the same year — UC Santa Barbara (2002) and UNLV (1985, 1986 and 1990). ... This is the fourth straight year that a Big West school got its women's and men's teams into the finals. Last season, it was Northridge and Cal Poly. In 2013 it was Pacific, and in 2012 it was UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State. ... Hawaii got to the title game with a 65-58 upset of top-seeded UC Davis.
UC Irvine: The only other time the Anteaters faced Hawaii in this tournament was 2013, when they won 71-60 in the quarterfinals. ... Irvine got to the title game with a 72-63 overtime victory over UC Santa Barbara, which gave it three consecutive 20-win seasons and eight in the program's 50-year history. ... The Anteaters also won both regular-season meetings against Hawaii, 78-72 on Jan. 24 at home, and 75-60 on Feb. 19 at Irvine. ... Irvine leads the all-time series 9-5.