UC Irvine, the shooters’ school, had lost its touch in recent weeks, but the Anteaters revived their sagging perimeter game just in time Wednesday night to extend their season.
Irvine beat University of the Pacific for the 19th time in a row, but the 68-62 victory in the first round of the Big West Conference tournament in front of 5,533 at Long Beach Arena certainly wasn’t the easiest.
The Anteaters (12-16), who had made just 15 of 60 three-point attempts in losing their last four regular-season games, appeared headed for defeat when they fell behind by 11 midway through the second half. But Irvine, which had been relying on its post players, got a combined 26 points from guards Kevin Floyd and Rod Palmer and made five of 11 from three-point range.
Irvine, which will meet 18th-ranked Nevada Las Vegas tonight at 9 in the second round, also went inside effectively in the second half. Center Mike Doktorczyk and forward Ricky Butler, who combined for just six first-half points, rebounded to score 14 and 15 points, respectively.
Pacific (7-21), which shot 54% from the floor in the first half, hit a cold spell midway through the second half after pulling out to a 48-37 lead with 14:07 remaining. The Tigers made 43% of their shots in the second half.
The game was tied, 62-62, with 1:33 left when Butler made two free throws to give Irvine the lead for good. Floyd’s steal and ensuing off-balance, hanging jumper with 42 seconds left sealed the victory.
“Pacific has played us very tough all three times this year,” Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said. ‘We just wanted to get to the Vegas game. We just wanted to play Vegas again and we had to get through this game first.”
Irvine beat Las Vegas, 99-98, on Feb. 4, the Anteaters’ most recent victory at home.
The Tigers had four players in double figures, led by center Don Lyttle, who scored 14, but they missed too many shots in the clutch.
“We’ve never had a lead all year so I don’t know how we can know how to use a lead,” Pacific Coach Bob Thomason said. “It was a combination of what Irvine did and what we didn’t do.
“We didn’t make layups or free throws and we threw the ball away. We didn’t deserve to win.”
The way Irvine plays inside defense, it sometimes seems a miracle they ever win. By any standard, Irvine’s defense has been the worst in the Big West Conference this season. The Anteaters allowed the most points per game (86.7) and their opponents shot 51% from the field, highest in the conference.
Irvine followed form in the opening minutes Wednesday, giving up a host of layups and open jumpers as the Tigers pulled out to a 20-10 lead on Ron Tabron’s short bank shot with 12:30 remaining in the first half.
Lyttle, who scored 54 points in the first two games against Irvine, made his first three field goal attempts and two free throws in the first three minutes.
Then the Anteaters tried a gambling, chest-to-chest defense that began to pay some dividends. When Floyd made a steal and went coast-to-coast for the layup with 9:06 left in the half, Irvine had cut the Tigers’ lead to 24-21. And less than a minute later, the Anteaters had their first lead, 25-24.
Pacific regained its composure, though, and battled back to lead at halftime, 36-31. The Tigers picked up where they left off after the intermission and when Sam Barnes hit a wide-open six-foot jumper with 14:07 remaining in the game, Pacific led by 11 (48-37).
The Anteaters didn’t wilt, however, and when Butler made both ends of a one-and-one situation with 7:24 left, Irvine went up, 54-52.
The Anteaters have dealt with their share of ups and downs this season. They know they face an uphill task tonight against the Rebels, but at least there is a tonight for them.
Big West Notes
Forward Stacey Augmon, who led Nevada Las Vegas to its seventh consecutive Big West Conference championship, became the first sophomore to be named the conference’s player of the year. New Mexico State’s Neil McCarthy was named coach of the year, and Utah State guard Kendall Youngblood was named freshman of the year. Augmon averaged 14.7 points and 7.5 rebounds this season for the Rebels. McCarthy, in his fourth season at New Mexico State, guided the Aggies to second place, their best finish ever in the conference. Youngblood averaged 10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists for Utah State. . . . The conference’s first team: David Butler and Stacey Augmon (UNLV), Cedric Ceballos (Cal State Fullerton), Jervis Cole (Fresno State), Reid Newey (Utah State) and Johnny Roberson (New Mexico State). . . . The second team: Greg Anthony (UNLV), Carrick DeHart (UC Santa Barbara), Mike Doktorczyk (UC Irvine), Eric McArthur (UCSB) and John Hatten (Cal State Long Beach).