UC Irvine played its best basketball game of the season Saturday. And it made you wonder what might have been had the Anteaters acted like this all the time.
The funny thing about Saturday's game was that UCI lost by 10 points. That's five whole baskets. That's 10 free throws. The University of Nevada Las Vegas defeated the Anteaters, 99-89, before a sellout crowd of 1,496 at Crawford Hall.
But, for the first time this season, UCI didn't have to make excuses for a game it might have won. No way do the Anteaters beat the 14th-ranked Rebels. Everyone knows that. Not this season.
But it almost happened. And it really made you wonder.
Had UCI players been willing to get floor burns against all the New Mexico States of the world, maybe they wouldn't be staring at this 11-14 record over cereal this morning.
Had the Anteaters not saved this relentless intensity and emotion only for the big UNLV game, maybe UCI is in third place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., where everyone picked them to finish.
"I hate the idea of us playing up to our level of competition, but that's what we did today," said UCI forward Tod Murphy, who made 11 of 12 shots from the field and finished with 25 points. "It's not so much this loss that hurts as realizing how we played in all those other losses."
UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian, who recorded his 400th career coaching win Saturday, met UCI Coach Bill Mulligan at mid-court afterward.
"You scared the (bleep) out of us," Tarkanian said.
Mulligan knew it. And it made him wonder too.
His Anteaters, who fell to 6-8 in conference play, could not match the Rebels (19-3, 12-1 in PCAA) in talent. And, in the end, that was the difference.
But, for a few minutes of the second half . . .
With 15:17 left, UNLV's Spoon James lobbed a high pass near the rafters at Crawford Hall. Center Richie Adams left the gym floor and managed to catch the ball without hitting his feet on the rim. On his way down, with his back to the basket, he jammed the ball back over his head through the basket.
Isn't that just like those running, jumping Rebels. It gave UNLV a 65-49 lead and seemed the perfect time for Irvine fans to consider grabbing that second hot dog.
But then came UCI's best stretch of basketball in recent memory. In the next eight minutes, the Anteaters outscored the Rebels, 23-9. When Murphy scored with 7:23 left, it cut the lead to 74-72.
In that stretch, UCI had a clutch three-point shot from guard Jerome Lee, following an aggressive offensive rebound by Troy Carmon. It had a tip-in by Murphy after Lee had skidded on his belly to make a steal. It had a three-point play from Carmon (basket and foul) following a UNLV turnover.
After UNLV built an 80-72 lead, the Anteaters came back again. Murphy, taking a clever pass from guard Bryan Williams, scored on a slam dunk with 4:37 left to cut the lead to 80-78.
But the Anteaters had expended all their energy in the comeback. In the final four minutes, UNLV went to their star, senior Richie Adams.
Adams, who has been suffering from slight cartilage damage in his knee, went to work on Murphy in the final minutes. It was no contest.
Two left-handed jump hooks by Adams put UNLV ahead 86-78. He scored again with 1:14 left to make it 90-80. He scored 10 of his 23 points in the last three minutes.
"It doesn't matter who's on me," said Adams, the PCAA's Player of the Year last season. "It's just how I feel on that particular day. I wanted the ball."
Murphy, 6-foot 9-inches, couldn't stop the 6-8 Adams.
"There was nothing I could do about it," he said. "He jumps so much higher than me. I was getting up pretty high, but I couldn't block his jump shot. I tried everything, I even put my hands over his eyes. You can only pray that he misses every now and then."
The UCI defense couldn't collapse on Adams because the Rebels were hitting from outside. Sophomore point guard Fred Banks made 6 of 7 three-point shots and finished with 30 points, 17 above his season average. Guard Anthony Jones made 9 of 15 shots from the field and finished with 19 points.
"If we play that hard all year, our record isn't what it is."