Once again, the what ifs and could haves boggled the mind Saturday night.
What if UC Irvine didn't turn the ball over a season-high 25 times against New Mexico State at the Bren Center? What if the Anteaters didn't go flat for five minutes late in the game? What if New Mexico State hadn't gone to the free throw line 44 times, making 29?
Those things happened and Irvine lost to New Mexico State, 88-75, before 2,248 fans.
The loss was Irvine's eighth in a row, three short of the school record of 11 set 10 years ago. The Anteaters dropped to 2-13 overall, 0-6 in the Big West Conference. New Mexico State, leading the conference, is 14-1, 5-0.
For an all-too-brief time it appeared as if Irvine might snap out of its season-long doldrums and upset the Aggies.
Whenever New Mexico State seemed ready to pull away, Irvine would rally.
The Anteaters cut a 13-point New Mexico State lead to 62-59 with 8:46 to play. But after a time out, New Mexico State regained its composure and turned the game into a runaway.
Irvine couldn't hang onto the ball, which contributed to a 15-3 run over the next five minutes that gave the Aggies a 77-62 lead.
"We just couldn't shake them," New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy said. "We were playing well, but couldn't shake them (until late in the game)."
Center James Anderson played particularly well for the Aggies, hitting all 10 of his shots from the field for a game-high 30 points.
He had six points, including a one-handed reverse dunk after a steal at midcourt, during the Aggies' big run.
"I'm not known as a shooter," Anderson said. "But I'm concentrating more."
Keith Hill had 14 points, Reggie Jordan 13 and Randy Brown 11 for the Aggies.
Center Ricky Butler, who made all seven of his shots from the field, had 19 points and nine rebounds to lead Irvine. Jeff Herdman added 17, Rod Palmer 16 and Jeff Von Lutzow 15.
The Anteaters, whose shooting percentage had been hovering around the 40% mark, shot 50% for only the second time this season.
"We shot 50%, but you have to take away 25 possessions," Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said, referring to the 25 turnovers. "You can't turn it over against (quick) teams like that."
Irvine did and lost again.
Still, McCarthy was impressed with the Anteaters.
"They were one of the best shooting teams we've seen," he said. "I thought Bill had his team very well prepared to play us."
Early on, Irvine had trouble with the Aggies' full-court press and aggressive two-three zone defense. But the Anteaters solved it in the second half, hitting three-pointers and forcing McCarthy to abandon the press.
"They were shooting three-pointers out of their minds," McCarthy said.
Irvine also made its shots outside, making 10 of 25 three-pointers. Herdman, who had his best all-around game in conference play, made four of eight.
"I still think we're getting better," Mulligan said.
Brett Pagett, a reserve guard, has enrolled at Rancho Santiago College, said Bob Olson, Irvine sports information director. Pagett, who is sidelined with a foot injury, had not played this season for the Anteaters. . . . Coach Bill Mulligan started his 12th different lineup this season, going with Jeff Herdman and Don May at forward, Ricky Butler at center, and Justin Anderson and Rod Palmer at guard. Butler is the only player to start all 15 games. . . . The streaks continue: Irvine has lost 12 of its past 14 games in the Bren Center. The Anteaters have lost their past 10 Big West Conference games, dating to February 1989.
Mulligan on whether New Mexico State should be ranked in the top 25: "Sure, don't you guys? But not based on beating us. Beating Nevada Las Vegas and Santa Barbara."