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, waivered at times.
But Saturday in Irvine's Bren Center was the Anteaters' night of confirmation. 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 with a sharp offense, routed San Jose State, 98-77, in front 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 has been sporting a new look--an effective pressure defense. The Anteaters unveiled it 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 overall and 4-2 in the PCAA) 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. "But 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 (8-6, 3-2) outshot the Spartans, 53% to 49% from the floor, and outrebounded them, 38-22. And, more important, 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. And, of course, Irvine won easily.
"I played against him when I was a freshman at Idaho," Labat said, "but he's a lot better now. He was forcing some shots, though. I think our pressure defense, if you can call it pressure, bothered him."
It was pressurized enough for Mulligan, who has been dreaming of just this sort of defensive intensity.
"It was absolutely our best defensive effort," he said. "We kept our intensity up all game and we got a bunch of fastbreaks 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. They led by 8 (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, taking an 18-point advantage when Engelstad sank a 12-foot bank (while drawing another foul) and made the free throw.
But this was no one-man show for Irvine. Point guard Kevin Floyd made 7 of 12 field goal attempts and finished with 18 points and 8 assists. Forward Frank Woods hit 7 of 10 from the field and also scored 18. Guard Mike Hess had 14.
"We were tired of picking up the paper and reading how we didn't play any defense and couldn't win unless we shot great," Floyd said. "Well, we didn't shoot that great in the first half (46%) and we led by eight.
"This was our best defense and everything else came from that."
Berry wasn't too happy with his team and even less pleased with the officiating. He picked up the ball and threw a 50-foot chest pass to referee Al Hackney in the first half. When he tried it again in the second half, referee Norm Borucki sidestepped the ball and gave Berry a technical.
Engelstad, who was 8 of 15 from the field--including 2 of 3 from three-point range--made both free throws on the technical. Hess scored on a reverse layup after Irvine was awarded possession and the Anteaters were up by 19 with two minutes to play.
"I never, never dreamed we could beat this team by this margin," Mulligan said.
The reality will set in when he views the tape today and discovers that his team actually played superb defense against a good team.
Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan often complains about student apathy at Irvine, but after what happened near the end of the first half Saturday, he probably wishes they would stay away . . . or at least stay quiet when they do show up. With about 15 seconds remaining in the half and San Jose State's Ricky Berry dribbling the ball near midcourt, a group of students started a false countdown. " Five, four . . . " Irvine's Mike Labat and Kevin Henderson double-team Berry. Floyd knocks the ball loose and Labat grabs it. " Three, two . . ." Labat tosses the ball to Floyd. And Floyd heaves it backward over his head, over the basket and out of bounds. Floyd looks up at the scoreboard and discovers a very embarrassing six seconds remain. Rodney Scott brings the ball upcourt, passes to Berry on the wing and Berry hits a three-pointer. Instead of trailing by 11--or maybe even 13 or 14--the Spartans trail, 40-32, at the half. "If we lost by three, I would have committed suicide," Floyd said, forcing a smile. Got to love that homecourt disadvantage.