UC Irvine's basketball team came into the final week of Big West Conference play with a quest. The Anteaters wanted to earn a night off next Wednesday when the last four finishers in the conference vie for the chance to compete in the Big West tournament's round of eight.
Thursday night, Irvine blew a 14-point second-half lead to Utah State and lost in overtime, 95-94, in front of 3,361 in the Bren Center. Now, the only way the Anteaters (11-5 overall and 8-9 in Big West play) can stay out of next Wednesday's qualifying games is if they end in a tie with Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State for sixth. In that case, they would earn the No. 6 seed in the tournament because of tiebreaker rules.
Utah State (12-14, 10-7) outscored Irvine, 14-0, in a span of less than 3 minutes late in the second half after trailing, 74-60, with 7:07 to play. Still, Irvine had a chance to win the game in regulation when Ricky Butler, who scored 22 to lead Irvine, missed a 10-foot baseline jumper with 2 seconds left.
Irvine trailed by as many as six (92-86) in the overtime when the Aggies had their biggest lead of the game, but Justin Anderson's three-pointer with 6 seconds left pulled the Anteaters to within one, 95-94.
Irvine quickly fouled guard Reid Newey, the conference's best free-throw shooter at 81%, but the senior guard missed the front end of the one-plus-one situation and Irvine freshman Elgin Rogers grabbed the rebound, dribbled to halfcourt and then flung the ball out of bounds on what was either a horrible shot or an errant pass.
"We just gave it away," Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said. "They just killed us in the post late in the game. Our shooters have deserted us."
It was a foul-ridden contest and both teams' reserves were forced into key roles and extended action. Newey, Utah State's top scorer, picked up his fourth foul with 16:24 left in the game, but managed to keep from fouling out. Three Anteaters weren't as fortunate. Senior Mike Doktorczyk, Irvine's leading scorer on the season, guard Kevin Floyd and Butler all fouled out.
Doktorczyk scored 16 and Floyd had 12.
Irvine, which shot 55% from the floor in the first half, shot 52% in the second, but Utah State center Greg Houskeeper made five of six shots after the half and led the Aggies with 17 points.
Utah State had six players in double figures. Guard Kendall Youngblood scored 16. Newey added 15. Nathan Grant scored 13 and Stan Pepek had 12.
The Anteaters, thanks in no small part to four steals by Floyd, jumped out to a 20-8 lead when Mike Labat scored on a driving layup with 11:22 remaining in the first half.
The Aggies exploited Irvine's weak interior defense, though, and battled back to take a short-lived 31-30 lead at the 4:42 mark after reserve forward Stan Pepek made four close-in shots in less than 3 minutes.
Irvine, however, outscored the Aggies, 9-2, in the final 2 1/2 minutes of the half to take a 47-37 advantage into the intermission.
Labat, who hasn't started since the first game of Big West play at UC Santa Barbara, was in the starting lineup Thursday night because guard Rod Palmer has been ill. He scored 16 points, but, maybe more important, he did a good job of defending Newey.
Newey, who scored 26 in the first game against Irvine, had four three-pointers in the first 5 minutes of that game and the Aggies coasted to a 104-71 victory. He had just one three-pointer Thursday night.
Irvine's perimeter shooters have struggled in the last few games, so the Anteaters were intent on getting the ball inside on this evening. Post players Butler and Doktorczyk combined for 24 first-half points. Both were seven for seven at the free throw line.
The Anteaters made 25 of 32 free throws, but the Aggies converted on 28 of 37.
The Anteaters' second-half cold spell was the real culprit in this loss.
"I guess we can't stand prosperity," Mulligan lamented.