ANAHEIM, Calif. — Kyle Allman Jr. had his Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player Trophy next to him and looked at it with much satisfaction.
He’d just put the finishing touches on a fantastic 26-point performance to lead Cal State Fullerton to a decisive 71-55 victory over UC Irvine in the conference tournament championship.
Allman lost out on the conference’s regular season most valuable player trophy, but everything was all good on Saturday with that other MVP and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I worked super hard to get this. I was a little down about not getting player of the year,” Allman said. “This made me a little happy.”
Fourth-seeded Cal State Fullerton (20-11) won the Big West Tournament for the first time since 2008, making the Ttians’ upcoming NCAA Tournament appearance the first in a decade and first under coach Dedrique Taylor.
Khalil Ahmad added 23 points, and he and Allman also added plenty of talking to their game after making jumpers and runners and 3-point shots. Asked what they were saying to UC Irvine players, Ahmed said: “I guess we were just talking nice.”
Allman made his first four three-point attempts. He was in a groove all game and had a glorious, two-handed breakaway dunk with 4:29 left to put the exclamation mark on the game. That gave the Titans a 65-49 lead. When he was at the free-throw line at the end of the game, Titans fans chanted “MVP! MVP!”
Allman made 8 of 16 shots. Ahmed made three 3-pointers.
After going scoreless in the semifinals, UC Irvine’s Evan Leonard scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half. No other player scored in double figures for the Anteaters (18-17).
“I feel like we grew up a lot, especially these last three days,” Leonard said. “We lost, but I feel this is in some way a lesson that it can allow us to take what we learned from this game and work on what we need to work on in the summer. We’ll continue to get better, and we’ll be back.”
Both teams suffered from poor shooting in the first half. The Titans shot 25.9 percent from the field and the Anteaters 30.3 percent.
UC Irvine, the Big West’s best defensive team, couldn’t figure out a way to stop Allman, Ahmad and Co.
“Early in the game, Kyle Allman made some tough shots,” Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “He has great lift on his shots. It’s difficult for anybody in our league to contest him when he gets the type of lift he can get. He made some tough ones early in the game and he did it again to start the second half. That’s what great players do. He was the MVP because of that type of performance.”
Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball sat courtside for the championship game. Ball played high school basketball with UC Irvine forward John Edgar Jr. and Fullerton guard Austen Awosika at Chino Hills (California) High.
CAN COACH GET A RIDE?
How does Taylor want to celebrate his conference tournament championship? By getting a ride on the Zamboni at the Honda Center, where the Titans won and the place the Anaheim Ducks call home.
“I just want to ride on the back of that,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t even have to be a game. I just want to ride on the back of that and be a part of somebody else’s success.”
Cal State Fullerton: The Titans made their mark this season by beating top seed UC Davis three times this year, including the Big West semifinals.
UC Irvine: As UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack said, the Anteaters are the “gold standard” of the conference. Even with a young team, the Anteaters advanced to the Big West Tournament final, so the future should be bight.
Cal State Fullerton: The NCAA Tournament. The Titans are battle-tested, winning close games in the quarterfinals and semifinals but controlled the tournament championship most of the game.
UC Irvine: The Anteaters are putting themselves in good position in the offseason. They played for the tournament championship for the second consecutive season but lost both. The Anteaters have also played for the tournament title for the fourth time in six years.