"Way to win ugly, guys" was the battle cry from the Anteater locker room after Irvine's 87-80 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. victory at the Spanos Center in front of 2,724.
"The good teams win those games, you know," was the only plus Coach Bill Mulligan could come up with.
The Anteaters (9-6 overall, 4-2 in conference) trailed much of the game and led by just three, 83-80, with 31 seconds remaining. Guard Mike Hess made both ends of a one-and-one situation with 20 seconds left and Jeff Herdman dropped in a layup with four seconds left to boost Irvine to the winning margin.
The Anteaters came into the game hitting 77.7% of their free throws--third best in the nation--but they managed to make just 23 of 39 on this evening or the game would have been a blowout.
"Oooh," point guard Kevin Floyd said, grimacing. "We're probably gonna be 264th or somethin' after tonight."
Floyd, who missed the front end of two one-and-ones in the final four minutes, had a big offensive night otherwise, finishing with 21 points. He hit 8 of 10 shots from the field.
"After we missed a few, you could see that question on our faces," Floyd said. "We were thinking about it a little. With me personally, it was just a matter of my mechanics breaking down."
Pacific (5-11, 0-6) made 23 straight free throws and finished 27 of 32 at the line. Ironically, Irvine holds the NCAA single-game record (34 straight) and it established the mark on this floor in 1982.
But the Tigers did a number of other things well, too, and Mulligan--who had a bad feeling about this game going in--thought his fears might be realized. Pacific led by as many as nine points in the first half and had a 70-66 advantage with 7:36 left in the game.
The Anteaters, who ended up with a 40-39 lead at halftime, could have been in real trouble if they hadn't made 5 of 7 three-pointers before the intermission. They were just 10 of 22 on two-point attempts and 5 of 10 from the free throw line.
"This was a very close game," Tiger Coach Tom O'Neill said. "We played really hard and pretty well most of the time. It came down to the critical plays, and we just didn't get the job done. We had the ball in the hands of the people we wanted, but things happened. . . . We lost the handle or dribbled it out of bounds or something."
Domingo Rosario, an acrobatic 6-foot 5-inch forward who red-shirted last year after an automobile accident in February of 1986 almost ended his career, was one of those people. But he couldn't get off the big, game-tying shot and ended up just losing the ball while dribbling with 1:59 left to play and Irvine leading, 80-77.
Guard Jon Barry, son of former NBA star Rick Barry, was another, but he missed a jumper in the lane with 1:01 remaining and Irvine ahead, 81-78.
Both teams accomplished their defensive goals in the first half. Pacific guard Christian Gray began the game guarding Irvine center Wayne Engelstad and held him to four first-half points. And Irvine's Mike Labat and Herdman stifled Rosario, who had only two. But Engelstad finished with a game-high 22 and Rosario rallied to total 17.
But Rosario managed just two points in the final five minutes and much of the credit has to go to 6-1 guard Hess.
"I kept turning around to see him (Rosario) score," said Hess, who had his hands full all night trying to defend against Barry, who scored 19, and Pacific's other guard, Christian Gray, who had 18. "Sometimes, a small guy can have an advantage on defense until the other guy gets the ball.
"So, with about five minutes to go, I asked Coach Mulligan to let me guard him. I just tried to play position defense and deny him the ball."
The tactic worked and Irvine was able to keep its streak against Pacific alive. Saturday night, the Anteaters hope to end another streak when they travel to Fresno State's Selland Arena, where they have never won.
"I think this game does show something about this team," Floyd said. "If we'd have played like that and shot free throws like that in November, we would have lost. I think this game showed the character of this team. We're progressing as a team. We're jelling. We have unity."
The Anteaters better have their free throw touch too. They won't beat many teams in the PCAA playing like they did Thursday night.
Which brings up one more positive: timing. Irvine picked the right night for an off night.