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Stewart Has Key Role in UCI Debut : Basketball: His two three-pointers during 12-0 run help Anteaters defeat Lafayette, 64-56.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Uncertain how he would do as he played in a college game for the first time in more than a year, Keith Stewart started cautiously but steadily in his UC Irvine debut Saturday.

“I didn’t want to try to do too much,” said Stewart, a transfer who has started games for Marquette and Purdue during a college career full of fits and starts. In his first game in an Irvine uniform, Stewart didn’t do too much--just enough--coming off the bench to play a crucial role in the Anteaters’ 64-56 victory over Lafayette in front of 1,273 in the Bren Center.

Stewart entered the game in the first half, but didn’t try a shot until the second, when he broke open Lafayette’s zone with two crucial three-pointers during a 12-0 run that helped Irvine pull away after trailing by one at halftime.

Stewart transferred to Irvine last winter, but has twice seen his debut delayed this season, once because of an NCAA rules violation while he was at Marquette, and later because he had not completed academic requirements at Irvine. When he finally got his chance Saturday, the junior point guard finished with nine points, two rebounds and an assist in 14 minutes.

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“He’s a player of a very high quality talent,” said Irvine Coach Rod Baker, who played all of his regulars before sending Stewart in during the first half. “He stepped up and played. He had nine points, but they were the biggest nine points we’ve seen around here in a while.”

Irvine, which entered the game shooting 40%, has struggled sorely on offense, and Stewart represented a glimmer of hope.

The score was tied, 37-37, when Stewart came in for starter Gerald McDonald five minutes into the second half. Irvine was down by four after a bad pass by Stewart gave Lafayette a basket and a 41-37 lead. Then Stewart found himself open beyond the top of the key and hit for three, and suddenly Lafayette’s zone was not able to sag so much. Craig Marshall made two free throws, Elzie Love scored twice, and Stewart added another three-pointer and Irvine was ahead, 49-41 with 10 minutes left.

“Obviously, Keith gives us another dimension,” Baker said. “Now we have a guy with a little more range. I think he can go a full step beyond the line effortlessly. Some guys are shooters, some guys are scorers. He’s a scorer who can shoot.

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“They backed off him, and he wasn’t afraid to shoot it.”

Stewart wasn’t afraid, but he was cautious.

“It’s hard,” he said. “You go through a lot of ups and downs sitting out a season. When the time finally comes around, you wonder if you still have it. It’s different to play again in a game as opposed to practice.”

Stewart’s year has been particularly tough. A brother was killed this year in Milwaukee.

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“A lot of guys sit out a year, but let’s think about what he’s been through,” Baker said. “The stuff with his brother, the NCAA stuff, the academics. The change in coaches. He comes here to play for one coach, and another guy shows up.”

Love, a freshman swingman, led Irvine with 12 points off the bench, and Gerald McDonald and Elgin Rogers each added 10.

Craig White and Geoff Schoeneck each scored 12 for Lafayette. Schoeneck had all 12 of his points in the first half, without missing a shot.

Lafayette (1-6) has only one victory this season, over Swarthmore, and has lost to Vermont, Princeton, Yale, Rider and Syracuse. But at halftime Saturday, Lafayette had a 29-28 lead over Irvine, which entered the game with a 2-5 record.

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“What’s the difference between 1-5 and 2-5?” Baker said, when asked if the Anteaters had taken Lafayette lightly. “I didn’t think we played hard enough (in the first half). We kind of let them push us all around, let them do what they wanted to do.”

Lafayette runs an offense that makes its living off back-door cuts, and Irvine runs a defense that emphasizes denial, leaving the back door wide open. Baker was counting on his players helping out to cut off the back door, but in the first half, they didn’t do it.

Irvine’s defense stiffened in the second half, and Stewart made Lafayette’s zone play honest.

Irvine held on despite making only four of 10 free throws in the final two minutes, and allowing Lafayette to get as close as five points.

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“We knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk game,” Stewart said. “You have to play hard no matter who you play. I’m sure they’re as hungry for wins as we are.”

Notes

Reserve center Uzoma Obiekea did not dress for the game because he has been ill. . . . Redshirt guard Lloyd Mumford, a transfer from Villanova, has permission to be away during the holidays but will return to the bench by the time classes resume. . . . More than 2,000 tickets are still available for Irvine’s game against Nevada Las Vegas on Saturday in the Bren Center.


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