Large second-half leads kept slipping away for UC Irvine Thursday night, but in the end, it was Cal State Fullerton that slipped the most, all the way from sixth place to eighth in the Big West Conference after a 96-92 loss to the Anteaters.
A crowd of 2,021 in Titan Gym saw Fullerton whittle a 20-point deficit to four midway through the second half and an 11-point deficit to two with 1 minute 17 seconds remaining.
But Gerald McDonald made two free throws with 20 seconds left and Jeff Von Lutzow made two free throws with four seconds remaining to keep the Anteaters ahead by four and secure the victory.
The loss dropped the Titans to 13-12, 6-10 in conference. They are a half-game ahead of ninth-place San Jose State with two games left, against UC Santa Barbara Saturday and Nevada Las Vegas on March 2.
The Anteaters (9-18, 4-11) remain in last place but keep their conference tournament playoff hopes alive. They have three games left, against Las Vegas, Utah State and San Jose State. Only eight of 10 Big West teams advance to the conference tournament.
Senior forward Jeff Herdman scored a career-high 31 points, making five of five three-point shots, and senior center Ricky Butler made 13 of 13 field goals and scored 28 to lead Irvine, which shot 63.6% (35 of 55) from the field, about 20 percentage points better than the Anteaters' 43.2% season shooting percentage.
Herdman, who ranks second in the nation in three-point field goals per game (3.8), did most of his damage from outside, and Butler, who scored 32 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a previous win over Fullerton, rendered the Titans defenseless inside.
"When the ball goes in the hole, we look a lot better," Anteater Coach Bill Mulligan said. "In the Santa Barbara game (a 69-60 loss Saturday), Butler was shooting fall-aways, but when he takes it to the hole, he's unstoppable."
Butler also came up with a big defensive play in the final minute. Fullerton had trimmed Irvine's lead to two, 92-90, on Agee Ward's follow shot with 1:17 left, and the Titans had a chance to tie when Herdman dribbled the ball off his knee with 36 seconds left for his eighth turnover.
But when Fullerton point guard Wayne Williams tried to force a pass inside, Butler stole the ball with 30 seconds to go. McDonald made his two free throws on the other end, and the Anteaters were on their way toward snapping a five-game losing streak.
Five players scored in double figures for the Titans, led by Joe Small's career-high 33 points, Williams' career-high 17, and J.D. Green's 15. Fullerton made a school-record 12 three-pointers on 25 attempts, but the Titans couldn't make the key plays in the second half to surge ahead, and their defensive effort, especially in the first half, left a lot to be desired.
"We made some big plays to come back and some stupid plays down the stretch," Fullerton Coach John Sneed said. "We had some guys who didn't compete at times, and the lack of effort is hard to accept as a coach. We didn't get into gear defensively until we got down by 20 early in the second half."
Irvine's 53-42 halftime lead was deceiving. The Titans hadn't been this thoroughly dominated for 20 minutes since their last venture to Las Vegas and were lucky to be trailing by only 11.
The Anteaters beat them with one-on-one moves, back-door passes, inside shots, outside shots and follow shots.
Butler made eight of eight field goals and had 18 points by halftime, muscling out Fullerton centers Aaron Wilhite and Kevin Ahsmuhs as if they were point guards.
Wilhite was nursing an injured knee, and Ahsmuhs' playing time increased because reserve center Ron Caldwell was kicked off the team Wednesday.
"Aaron is not real mobile, and he can't put a lot of pressure on his knee," Sneed said. "And Kevin is just too physically weak to guard him."
Sneed used his first timeout at the 19:06 mark of the first half after the Anteaters converted two turnovers to baskets, and Ward called the Titans' second timeout at the 15:38 mark when he couldn't get the ball inbounds.
When Irvine extended the lead to 63-43 early in the second half, Sneed was forced to use his last timeout with 17:01 remaining.
"That really hurt us," Sneed said. "You like to have at least two timeouts in the last two minutes."
Fullerton seemed to recharge itself after the timeout, though, and Small scored the next seven points before Butler's basket. Green then made two consecutive three-pointers to make it 65-55 with 14:15 left.
A few minutes later, Williams' three-pointer and two free throws and Small's three-pointer cut it to 70-66 with 10:25 to go.
Once again, it was Butler who stopped Fullerton's momentum, with an inside basket, and the Anteaters worked the lead up to 12, 86-74, on Herdman's three-pointer with 6:21 left.
A 12-4 Fullerton run, which included two three-pointers by Williams, brought the Titans back to within four, 90-86, with 2:55 left, but that's as close as the Titans would get.
Reserve center Ron Caldwell, who played in two games last week after serving a seven-game suspension, has been dismissed from the team again, Coach John Sneed said Thursday. Caldwell, a 6-foot-8 senior from Crenshaw High School, was suspended in mid-January for missing several practices and team meetings, but he returned after a team vote. He played seven minutes in last Thursday's loss to New Mexico State and five in Saturday's loss to Cal State Long Beach, scoring just one basket. He was averaging 8.0 points and 4.9 rebounds. Sneed said last week that he thought Caldwell's attitude had improved and that he seemed willing to accept a lesser role on the team, but his return only lasted a week--he was kicked off the team Wednesday.