UC Irvine's basketball team had lost two in a row and suddenly had come to the realization that it was faced with two options:
--Turn up the intensity on defense and get the ball in to center Wayne Engelstad on offense.
--Or keep losing.
Saturday at the Bren Center, the Anteaters showed they are capable of accomplishing their goals on both ends of the court as they coasted to a 79-62 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. victory over New Mexico State in front of 1,507.
Irvine's pressure man-to-man defense forced nine first-half turnovers and held the Aggies to 11 points in the game's first 15 1/2 minutes. And Engelstad made 14 of 23 field-goal attempts and 11 of 12 free throws, scored 40 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
"Their defense totally took us out of everything we tried to do," Aggie Coach Neil McCarthy said, "and Engelstad owned us. He completely thwarted any plans we had for a comeback."
Irvine (10-8 overall and 5-4 in PCAA play) led at halftime, 40-19, after holding New Mexico State (12-10, 4-5) to 27% field-goal shooting before intermission. The Aggies closed the margin to nine points (71-62) with 4:30 remaining, but Engelstad scored on a spinning reverse layup, two free throws and an 18-foot jumper in the final three minutes.
It was that kind of afternoon for Engelstad, a 6-foot 8-inch, 250-pound senior, who put on a clinic on the wide variety of ways to make baskets. Engelstad is now fifth on Irvine's all-time scoring list with 1,250 points and needs 225 to catch No. 1, Kevin Magee. The Anteaters will play at least 10 more games this season, and Engelstad is averaging 23.8 points per game.
"He was phenomenal," McCarthy said. "We have had pretty good luck stopping our opponents' top scorers, but he's so mobile and clever for a guy his size. We made some defensive mistakes, but you can't short-change his effort today. He was simply awesome."
In the early going, it was the Anteater defense that stole the show, however. New Mexico State scored just four points during a 12-minute stretch midway through the first half.
Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan, who has complained loudly that his team has too many "nice guys," moved 6-7, 200-pound sophomore Steve Florentine into the starting lineup at forward ahead of 6-5, 175-pound sophomore Mike Labat. Florentine responded by holding the Aggies' leading scorer, Willie Joseph, scoreless in the first half. Joseph rallied to finish with a team-high 12 points.
"I felt like we needed some more bulk on the front line," Mulligan said. "We needed to get more physical."
Florentine may have been the designated thug, but he was the one who ended up with a cut lip, a bloody nose, a cut over his eye and a chipped tooth--not to forget a pat on the back from Mulligan--for his efforts.
"They all came on different elbows, too," Florentine said, managing a smile.
It was hard to tell whether the Anteaters' defensive pressure or the ease with which they ran their offense was the greater source of frustration for the Aggies.
"We had great intensity on defense, especially in the first half," Engelstad said. "I feel like I could sleep for two days and I wasn't even one of the guys out there clogging the lanes. I can't imagine how the guards feel."
Engelstad, of course, was expending most of his energy on the offensive end, but he still slipped in 40 points without burning all that many calories. New Mexico State trailed from the outset and was forced to play man-to-man most of the game. Guards Kevin Floyd and Mike Hess were able to get the ball in to Engelstad without much difficulty and combined for 12 assists.
"When I get the ball down low, I feel like I can score or go to the foul line almost every time," Engelstad said. "We were pretty patient today."
In fact, the Anteaters, that fun-lovin', run-gun-and-giggle outfit that was losing by scores such as 139-119 and 124-88 during nonconference play, may be only a memory soon.
"We might not run as much in the future," said Mulligan, one of the country's foremost proponents of fast-break basketball. "I know that's heresy for me to say, but we're more suited to being a half-court offensive team. We have to get the ball into Wayne."
Irvine shot 53% from the floor for the game and made 22 of 24 free throws. Reserve forward Mike Doktorczyk was the only other Anteater in double figures with 10 points.