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UCI Presses but Can’t Squeeze Out Victory : Anteaters: Full-court defense is ineffective against Utah, which rolls, 97-80, at the Bren Center.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One astute way to recover from a terrible season is by selective scheduling, which is one of the reasons UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan tried to arrange a game with Cal State Northridge, instead of, say, Louisiana State.

But when a planned Northridge game fell through because of confusion about the date, Mulligan turned to his friend Rick Majerus to fill an opening for a home game.

And in this Mulligan was not astute: Majerus has a very good team, as the Anteaters discovered in a 97-80 loss to Utah Saturday in front of 1,246 in the Bren Center.

Utah held Irvine’s leading scorer, center Ricky Butler, to three points in the first half, and took a 19-point lead by halftime, 52-33. Butler finished with 23 points, but most of them didn’t matter.

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Utah, which has only one loss (to Michigan) in seven games, was led by center Walter Watts, whose 21 points tied his career high.

Irvine pressed Utah--Irvine presses everyone --but the Utes attacked the press with success.

“The different presses we were in obviously hurt us,” Mulligan said.

Irvine switched presses, and backed off some, but never quit pressing--or trying to.

“I’m gonna do it because I’m a hardhead,” Mulligan said.

There were other problems: Butler’s poor first half, Utah’s 24-13 rebounding edge at halftime, Irvine making only nine of 23 three-point shots.

But Mulligan found nothing as irritating as what he perceived as a lack of effort.

“Basically, I’m disappointed we didn’t play hard,” he said.

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It might be partial tribute to the friendship of Mulligan and Majerus that the final margin was only 17.

“This is probably the worst I’ve felt after winning in my life. I love Bill Mulligan and what he’s done for basketball in this area and for his players,” said Majerus, whose friendship with Mulligan goes back to when Mulligan was a community college coach and Majerus was an assistant to Al McGuire at Marquette. “I’ve probably never felt more hollow, except maybe beating Bill Foster at Northwestern.”

Majerus was concerned about Mulligan some years ago when Mulligan suffered a mild stroke. Last year, it was Mulligan who was concerned. Majerus, 42, underwent multiple bypass heart surgery and missed most of the season.

After the game, despite seeing his only winning record since March, 1988, transformed into a .500 record at 3-3, Mulligan was smiling.

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“First of all, they’re a really good team, I think that’s obvious,” he said.

The Anteaters struggled without shooting guard Dylan Rigdon, who is out for at least two games with a hip flexor. Rigdon’s 10-point scoring average has been a disappointment, but the effect of his absence was clear in more than the scoring totals.

“Him being there, people have to respect him because if he gets hot, he can shoot all night long,” said Butler. “When he’s not there, they double- and triple-team me.”

Most of Butler’s support Saturday came from Gerald McDonald, who scored 19 points, including three three-pointers. Gabe Higa came off the bench to score 11 points, including three three-pointers, and Jeff Herdman added 10.

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Utah had six players in double figures, led by Watts.

Irvine is left to hope Utah is as good as the Anteaters believe it is--otherwise, they know they’re in trouble.

“We’ll see,” Butler said. “I don’t know what the effect will be. We’ll see in Maryland.”

Anteater Notes

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Irvine plays at Maryland Tuesday, but guard Dylan Rigdon is not expected to make the trip. Rigdon, out with a hip flexor, sat on the bench in street clothes Saturday. Asked if the injury, which was sustained in November but was recently exacerbated, had been part of the reason for his early-season slump, Rigdon laughed and said, “I’d like to think so.” . . . Irvine’s 53% field-goal percentage was its season-best. . . . Donny Daniels, a Cal State Fullerton assistant coach, is in his second season as an assistant at Utah. . . . With Rigdon out, Gerald McDonald in foul trouble and David Hollaway suffering from a slight hamstring injury, Coach Bill Mulligan chose to use 6-9 center Don May at point guard at times.


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