ANAHEIM, Calif. -- University of the Pacific coach Bob Thomason couldn't have written it up any better if he'd tried.
Reserve Tony Gill scored 19 points, Lorenzo McCloud added 16 and Pacific held off a second-half surge by UC Irvine to win the Big West Conference Tournament championship with a 64-55 victory Saturday night, sending Thomason and his Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in his last year of coaching at the school.
Thomason, who is in his 25th year at the school, will retire when the season ends.
"You couldn't have scripted it any better," he said. "God had a great plan for this team, and me. ... I'll have to ask him someday, about why. I think our team really earned it down the stretch of the season."
Pacific earned its ninth NCAA tournament berth, but first since 2006.
"If you can get into that 13 or so seed you always have a chance," said Thomason, who passed Jerry Tarkanian as the winningest coach in Big West history this season. "And it depends on the team and the matchup, what their strengths are and what you can do. We'll find out (Sunday) at 3:30, so, maybe 14, 15, 16, maybe we'll play the play-in game. Whatever it is, we'll show up for it."
No. 2 seed Pacific beat UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before outlasting No. 4 seed Irvine. Gill made 6 of 12 shots from the field including 2 of 3 on 3-pointers, and 5 of 6 free throws to earn tournament MVP honors.
"I just came in with the right mindset, coming in prepared and having confidence in myself," said Gill, a junior college transfer in his first year at Pacific. "It's one thing I lacked early on in the season, making the transition from junior college. It's a big jump getting used to everything and the speed of the game."
Pacific (22-12) held an 11-point lead at halftime, but Irvine (20-15) rallied in the second half behind Daman Starring, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half.
A putback by Chris McNealy (12 points) got the Anteaters within 44-41 with 10:45 remaining, but that was as close as they would get. Irvine, bidding for its first NCAA berth, lost its fourth Big West title game.
"It wasn't just Tony Gill," Irvine coach Russell Turner said. "Pacific, they have an interesting team. They're difficult to match up with when they come with five shooters and they have two big guys who can both stretch and shoot 3's. Gill's play in the first half especially was probably the key to the game with the shots that he made. But also McCloud created many of those with his outstanding penetration. The two of those guys were outstanding tonight."
Pacific led 31-20 at halftime and increased its lead 33-20 when Colin Beatty scored the first basket of the second half. Then the Anteaters, who shot just 26 percent from the field in the first half, suddenly got hot. An alley-oop from Michael Wilder to Will Davis II resulted in a spectacular one-handed dunk and started an 11-2 run that moved the Anteaters to within 42-39 with 11:36 left in the game.
Irvine got within five points in the final minutes, but Pacific made its free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
"We're disappointed to not come out on top, but I will say that I'm incredibly proud of our team," Turner said. "I thought we fought, we were fearless. Pacific made more plays than we did."
Pacific took a quick 4-0 lead, then went cold, missing its next nine shots and allowing Irvine to take the lead at 5-4 when Wilder hit a 3-pointer. Sama Taku's layup ended the dry spell, put the Tigers back on top and seemed to get them going.
A basket by Wilder gave the Anteaters their last lead of the first half at 9-8. A 3-pointer by Markus Duran put Pacific up 22-14, and after another defensive stop by Pacific, McCloud scored down low and the Tigers increased their lead to 24-14.
The lead grew to 26-14 after another bucket by McCloud.
Despite its cold start, Pacific shot 39 percent (13 for 33) from the floor in the first half, and held Irvine to just 26 percent (7 for 27) shooting. Pacific also held a 23-15 advantage on the boards, led by Travis Fulton, who had six rebounds.
McCloud and Gill each had eight points at the half, and Wilder had five points for Irvine.
Irvine will play in the CIT.