Victory Beautiful to Irvine : College basketball: Anteaters beat San Diego State, 79-64, to win opener for first time since ’87.
It didn’t look like the most fun--there were 51 fouls and missed shots galore--but the UC Irvine players swore that it was.
A smile spread across Gerald McDonald’s face: “It feels really good,” he said. For the first time since 1987, UC Irvine had won a season-opening game, defeating winless San Diego State, 79-64, in Rod Baker’s first game as Irvine’s coach.
Baker has pledged that his teams will play defense--a flagrant violation of Irvine tradition--and on Saturday the Anteaters did, slowly outmuscling and outhustling a bigger Aztec team in front of 2,169 at the Bren Center.
Elgin Rogers, who is starting this season after being kicked off the team for unspecified reasons last season under Bill Mulligan, scored 21 points and pulled down 14 rebounds, both career highs. Craig Marshall scored 17 and a still-ill Jeff Von Lutzow added 15 for the Anteaters.
But it was defense that eventually made the difference, as Irvine turned a 32-21 halftime deficit into a lead of as many as 18 in the second half.
Von Lutzow, who practiced only sparingly this week because of the flu and did not start, scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half.
“I never thought I’d like playing defense so much,” Von Lutzow said. “But it creates everything for ourselves, instead of creating everything for the other team.”
Baker knew the offense left plenty to be desired, but defense is his stock in trade.
“I tell you what, we guarded a little bit,” Baker said. “All we talk about is how we want to break people down and wear them out and get to where they don’t want any more. We got San Diego State to where they bent over and made it a little easier.”
Saturday’s victory wasn’t a thing of beauty. San Diego State fell to 0-3, and the teams combined to commit 51 fouls. Irvine won the battle of field-goal percentage by shooting only 44% to San Diego State’s 42%. Surprisingly, the smaller but physical Irvine team also won the rebounding battle, 40-29.
“Rebounding, that’s all we talked about all week,” Baker said. “I’m not too sure we were very good offensively, especially in the first half. We spend so much time on defense, maybe the offense slipped.”
Irvine’s halfcourt offense was halting and stiff in the first half, as McDonald, the point guard, repeatedly reset it while the team played tentatively.
In fact, the first half was a struggle between two faltering offenses. Irvine shot 38% and San Diego State shot only 33%.
But the Aztecs led at halftime, 32-31, despite making only six field goals in the first half. They did it by making 18 of 22 free throws as the smaller Anteaters mustered all the muscle it could and committed 16 first-half fouls.
At one point, the Aztecs scored 13 consecutive points from the free-throw line. Remarkably, only one Irvine player was in foul trouble at the half--Khari Johnson with three--although five other players had two.
The foul trouble became real in the second half, as McDonald picked up his fourth when he was called for throwing an elbow on offense with 14:24 left in the game.
Zuri Williams, a true freshman who was Baker’s first recruit, came on in relief. Irvine’s seven-point lead didn’t shrink, it grew.
“I didn’t want to give up the lead,” said Williams, who had four assists and three points in 13 minutes.
Twice, he drove and then kicked out passes to teammates that turned into three-point plays.
“My assistants have been on (Williams), saying he’s a Division II player,” Baker said. “He ain’t going to Cal State Hayward, we need him here.”
San Diego State, which recorded only six assists in the game, was led by Courtie Miller’s 22 points on nine-of-13 shooting.
Joe McNaull, the Aztecs’ leading scorer, had only three points in 26 minutes, but sat out some with foul trouble.
“We’re just not a very good team right now,” San Diego State Coach Jim Brandenburg said. “By that I mean the approach just isn’t there. We have to distribute the ball better and play a lot more efficiently.”
Irvine, for a change, started the season on a positive note--if a decidedly different one. A year ago, the Anteaters scored 101 points in their opener, and lost, 134-101, to UCLA.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Rogers said. “It was fun.”
Khari Johnson, a sophomore from El Toro High School, made his first career start, replacing Jeff Von Lutzow, who has been ill. Johnson had four rebounds and four points--including a crowd-stirring reverse dunk on a fastbreak . . . UC Irvine’s last season-opening victory was a 90-68 win over Army in 1987, which was also the beginning Irvine’s last winning season (16-14.).