UC Irvine, the basketball shooters’ school, had lost its touch in recent weeks, but the Anteaters revived their sagging perimeter game Wednesday night just in time to extend their season.
Irvine beat the University of the Pacific for the 19th straight game, although the Anteaters had to come from 11 points down to gain the 68-62 victory in the first round of the Big West Conference tournament before 5,533 fans at the Long Beach Arena.
Irvine, which had been relying on its post players, got a combined 26 points from guards Kevin Floyd and Rod Palmer.
That was a major turnaround for the Anteaters (12-16), who had made just 15 of 60 three-point attempts in losing their last four regular-season games.
Irvine, which will play 18th-ranked Nevada Las Vegas tonight at 9 in the second round, also went inside effectively in the second half. After combining to score only six first-half points, Irvine center Mike Doktorczyk and forward Ricky Butler recharged to finish with 14 and 15 points, respectively.
Pacific (7-21), which shot 54% in the first half, hit a cold spell midway through the second half after taking a 48-37 lead with 14:07 remaining.
The game was tied, 60-60, with 2:35 left, but Doktorczyk made two free throws down the stretch, and Floyd came up with a key steal and a hanging jumper in the final minutes to pull out the victory.
“We just wanted to get to the Vegas game,” Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said. “Pacific has played us very tough all three times this season.”
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.
By any standard, Irvine’s defense has been the worst in the Big West. The Anteaters allowed the most points per game (86.7) and their opponents shot 51%, highest in the conference.
Irvine followed form in the opening minutes Wednesday, giving up numerous layups and open jumpers as the Tigers took a 20-10 lead on Ron Tabron’s short bank shot with 12:30 remaining in the first half.
Lyttle, who scored a total of 54 points in the first two games against Irvine, made his first three field-goal attempts and a pair of free throws in the first three minutes.
The Anteaters tried a gambling, chest-to-chest defense that began to pay some dividends.
When Floyd made a steal and went the length of the court for the layup with 9:06 left in the first half, Irvine cut the Tigers’ edge to 24-21. And less than a minute later, the Anteaters held 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, 48-37.
The Anteaters didn’t wilt, however, and when Butler made both ends of a one-plus-one situation with 7:24 left, Irvine went up, 54-52.