FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — RJ Nembhard made sure TCU coach Jamie Dixon earned his 400th career victory on the home court of his alma mater rather than a neutral setting in Las Vegas.
The redshirt sophomore hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds left while scoring a career-high 20 points, lifting the Horned Frogs to a 59-58 victory over UC Irvine on Thursday night.
TCU (4-0) scored the final six points of the game, both on 3s from Nembhard, who went to high school in a suburb near the TCU campus and topped his previous career best of 16 in the second game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“When I played at Keller, our team wasn’t picked to win games a lot,” said Nembhard, whose Horned Frogs were picked last in a preseason Big 12 poll. “It kind of reminds me of this team, you know? People aren’t really respecting us right now. And we aren’t even playing our best ball yet, so we love this time.”
Dixon is in his fourth season at TCU after spending 13 years at Pittsburgh. And after coming close in the offseason to leaving for UCLA not far from where he grew up in Southern California, Dixon becomes the 11th coach to reach 400 wins in 17 seasons.
“I’ve been in great places. That’s probably what it says more than anything,” said Dixon, who takes a career record of 400-164 to a tournament in Las Vegas next week. “I’ve been very lucky. And I’m lucky to be here. So, that’s what it means to me.”
Freshman Jeron Artest gave the Anteaters a lead that looked like it might hold up on a 3-pointer with about eight minutes remaining.
The son of former NBA player Ron Artest, now known as Metta World Peace, had his highest-scoring game with seven points. He played in the first five games for Irvine (3-3) before getting his first start. Collin Welp led the Anteaters with 14 points.
Eyassu Worku scored 12 points for the Anteaters, and Brad Greene had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Greene’s bucket gave Irvine its biggest lead at 57-53 with 1:51 remaining. Nembhard answered with a 3-pointer at the other end, and hit the decisive 3 in transition from the top of the key after John Edgar Jr. missed two free throws with 12 seconds remaining.
Before Edgar’s misses, Worku missed the front end of a one-on-one with 21 seconds to go.
“Those are hard situations that I expect we’ll get better at,” Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “I’ve seen both those two guys who missed in those situations make critical free throws, and tonight they weren’t able to do that. But I love those guys and I know how hard it is to make them.”
UC Irvine: It’s been a solid start for the Anteaters coming off a school-record 31 wins, including Irvine’s first NCAA Tournament victory. The formula is similar. After finishing fourth in field-goal percentage defense last season at 38.2 percent, opponents are shooting just 36.4 so far.
TCU: Kevin Samuel, the other returning starter alongside Bane, had his fast start to the season slowed by foul trouble. The sophomore picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half and finished with four points and three rebounds in 13 minutes. Samuel was first TCU player in 25 years to open a season with three consecutive double-doubles.
Nembhard was 7 of 18 from the field, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range. He was 4 of 7 from long range in the second half, when he scored 15 points. Desmond Bane scored 11 for TCU. The rest of the Horned Frogs shot 31% from the field (10 of 32).
Both teams go to the MGM Resorts Main Event in Las Vegas for two games, starting Sunday. Irvine plays Detroit, and TCU faces Clemson.