Before the season began, there weren't many believers. After it started, the faithful few began to have doubts.
Even Bill Mulligan, UC Irvine's basketball coach and the man who said this team could win with a run-and-shoot offense and a pressure man-to-man defense, wavered at times.
But Saturday at Irvine's Bren Center, the Anteaters made believers of everyone. You could tell by Mulligan's Cheshire Cat grin and center Wayne Engelstad's unabashed, toothless smile. The Anteaters, putting together their best defensive game of the season and a sharp offense, routed San Jose State, 98-77, before a crowd of 3,438.
"This is the team I've been waiting all year to see," said Engelstad, who scored 29 points. "We looked unbelievable at times. I looked up and thought, 'Is this us ?'
"I was smiling from ear to ear. It was an ugly smile (he lost a front tooth in practice this week), but it was a big smile. I started the flat-top look, now I'm gonna start the toothless look."
This week, Irvine (8-6 overall, 3-2 in the PCAA) has shown a new look: an effective pressure defense. They unveiled Thursday night and beat Utah State, which came into Irvine in first place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. They rolled it out again Saturday night and beat another first-place team. The Spartans (8-6, 4-2) were in a three-way tie for first in the conference.
"We knew we were in trouble when they started hitting shots from the trees in the second half," Spartan Coach Bill Berry said. "I don't think we can play a worse game. Obviously, we were horrible, but you have to give them some credit, too."
This was no fluke victory. The Anteaters outshot (53% to 49% from the floor) and outrebounded (38-22) San Jose State. And, more importantly, they dictated the tempo of the game while taking All-American Ricky Berry, the coach's son, out of his game.
Sophomore guard Mike Labat, got the unenviable assignment of defending Berry as his 21st birthday present. It turned out to be his favorite gift. Berry scored 31 points, but it wasn't his usual, smooth-and-easy performance.
"I played against him when I was a freshman at Idaho," Labat said, "but he's alot better now. He was forcing some shots. I think our pressure defense, if you can call it pressure, bothered him."
It was pressurized enough for Mulligan, who said it was far and away the Anteaters' best defensive performance.
"It was absolutely our best defense," he said. "We kept our intensity up all game and we got a bunch of fast breaks out of it . . . the way you're supposed to."
Irvine jumped out to a 18-8 lead on a reverse layup by Engelstad and an ensuing free throw. And they led, 40-32, at halftime. The Spartans cut it to six early in the second half, but the Anteaters regained their momentum and outscored San Jose State, 18-6, and took an 18-point lead when Engelstad sank a 12-foot bank shot and a free throw for a three-point play.
But this was no one-man show for Irvine. Point guard Kevin Floyd had 18 points and 8 assists. Forward Frank Woods also scored 18 and guard Mike Hess had 14.
"I never, never dreamed we could beat this team by this margin," Mulligan said. "It was a great win."