With about five minutes left in the first half Thursday night, Cal State Fullerton Coach George McQuarn realized that he was winning the battle and losing the war.
He had decided to unleash a stifling, chest-to-chest, man-to-man defense on UC Irvine in an effort to slow down 6-10 Anteater center Johnny Rogers, who was averaging 23 points a game. Rogers had poured in 36 points Monday night against New Mexico State and McQuarn, who watched from press row, was dutifully impressed.
Fullerton's 6-6 Tony Neal, whose quickness and jumping ability easily neutralized the height difference, was given the job of stopping the most famous "J.R." in Irvine.
After 15 minutes with Neal shadowing him, Rogers had just one basket. But the Anteaters still were leading, 34-27.
That's when McQuarn turned to the zone defense that has created so many problems for UCI this year--and turned this game around as well. Fullerton outscored Irvine, 9-0, late in the first half and held on for a 89-80 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. win in front of a sell-out crowd of 1,496 in Crawford Hall.
Irvine (2-4 in conference and 7-10 overall) cut the Fullerton (3-2, 7-7) lead to four at 80-76 with 1:37 left. But the Titans--notoriously poor free throw shooters under pressure--made 5 of 6 in critical one-and-one situations in the final minute and a half.
"It's the same old story," Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said. "Why is it always us who has to end up coming back? You guys have seen us play. You tell me what's wrong. We played hard, but we played dumb."
The Titans managed to combine aggressive play with prudent judgment, and the result, in McQuarn's estimation, was their best game of the year.
"If you zone a team like Irvine, you're going to give Rogers all the shots he wants," McQuarn said. "We wanted to take him out of the game, and we did, but I didn't like what was happening with the other four players, and they weren't shooting too well (37% in the first half), so we went to the zone."
One of the Anteaters who was picking up the slack was Wayne Englestad, who almost doubled his season-high offensive output with 12 first-half points. But he didn't score after the intermission, while Rogers pumped in 16 in the second half. Tod Murphy led UCI with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
"Our game plan was to keep Rogers from getting the ball," Neal said. "I thought I could defend him a lot better than the zone, but we were having other troubles."
Neal's offense suffered a bit in the first half, but he finished with 21 points and 6 rebounds.
Kevin Henderson, starting his fourth game at point guard, continued to provide the Titans with a potent running game and the clutch baskets. He scored 24 points and had 7 assists, but more important, he hit a three-pointer just as the horn sounded ending the first half that "really hurt," according to Mulligan. And he made two free throws and a basket in the last 55 seconds.
But Henderson and Neal have been carrying the Titans all season, and McQuarn has been allowing 6-8 Kerry Boagni, a transfer from Kansas, to try and shoot his way out of a slump. Boagni made just one of his first seven jumpers Thursday night, but he finally found the range and finished 11 of 22 from the field for 22 points.
It was the first time ever that three Titans have scored 20 or more points in McQuarn's five-year tenure.
"I'm really pleased because we didn't deteriorate in the second half," McQuarn said. "In fact, we got stronger and stronger as the game went on. We didn't have any of those terrible dead spots that have characterized this team. And we played very smart."
Mulligan, who walked past McQuarn (with whom he's had a most stormy relationship over the years) and said, "I'm tired of losing, George."
Irvine has lost three of its last four conference games--all at home--and Mulligan has watched his backcourt give some away and shoot the Anteaters out of some others.
The four Irvine guards who played Thursday night--Troy Carmon, Jerome Lee, Rodney Scott and Boris King--were a combined 7 of 30 from the field and turned the ball over a total of 14 times. The Titan backcourt of Henderson, Gary Davis and Richard Morton accounted for 39 points and just 4 turnovers.
"Look, I can deal with a missed shot," Mulligan said, when asked about his guards' performance, "but when you just stand there and watch it and then watch the guy slam at the other end, that's more than I can bear. I counted six times that happened . . . at least six.
"How many points did they beat us by? You figure it out."