IRVINE, Calif. — T.J. Robinson may find himself in the starting line-up again very soon.
After scoring nine points and pulling down 15 rebounds in a loss Thursday night, the freshman forward led Long Beach State to a 67-63 road win over UC Irvine with 20 points and 10 rebounds Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.
The 49ers (11-9, 6-2 Big West Conference) were without leading scorer Donovan Morris, who missed the game due to a nagging right foot injury and a stomach flu.
LBSU remained in first place and leads Cal State Northridge (6-3 in the Big West) by half a game.
Robinson wasn’t the only 49er to step up in Morris’ absence.
Stephan Gilling scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds while Larry Anderson also had 11 to go with six boards. Casper Ware added 10 and Brian Freeman was strong inside with nine rebounds — five offensive — to go along with eight points.
Long Beach finally had the game it so desperately needed in the paint, out-rebounding UCI, 41-28.
“To outrebound somebody 41-28 for our team is something special for us,” head coach Dan Monson said.
The emergence of Robinson has really given the 49ers a presence they were lacking in the middle.
“Coach said be aggressive and try and score,” Robinson said of getting the starting nod. “Since [Morris] is out, we can’t let that get us down. We got to keep fighting and that’s why we got the win.”
A back-and-forth game looked like it was finally out of UCI’s reach when Freeman drained a 3 from the top of the arc with 5:02 to play, giving Long Beach a 58-47 advantage. But an 11-1 Irvine run cut it to 59-58 with 1:19 remaining.
LBSU made just 1-of-6 from the free-throw line during that stretch, allowing UCI to crawl back in.
But The Beach stayed strong and Ware’s lay-up with 1:10 to play gave the ‘Niners a three-point lead. LBSU missed another four free throws and Patrick Rembert’s 3-pointer with just four seconds remaining made the score 65-63.
Gilling cooly knocked down two free throws with 2.9 seconds left on the clock to ice the game, which drew 2,917 fans.
“I’m really pleased with our guys,” Monson said. “We really challenged them, that without [Morris] we were going to have to win it on the defensive end and rebounding.”
The Anteaters (7-14, 4-4 Big West) featured their own impressive freshman forward. Eric Wise also had a double-double in the game, registering 19 points and 10 rebounds. Wise was 8-of-8 from the line.
UCI was 22-of-24 from the stripe as a team, including 14-of-14 in the second half.
Michael Hunter added 13 for Irvine but was just 2-of-11 from the field.
Long Beach led 31-27 at halftime.
Robinson paced The Beach with 13 points and five rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Freeman had four points, two blocks and two steals.
Eric Wise had 15 and seven for UCI.
Irvine struggled mightily from the field, making just eight field goals on 29 tries.
Morris watched the game from the ‘Niner bench in sweatpants and a walking boot. Monson said initial x-rays were negative but thinks it could be a stress fracture, calling Morris’ status day-to-day. The foot will be re-evaluated Monday.
Long Beach returns to action Thursday night against UC Davis at the Walter Pyramid. Game time is 7:05 p.m.