There were 22 seconds left when Khari Johnson and Elgin Rogers and some of the other players on UC Irvine's bench started lifting their jerseys to show the T-shirts underneath. "I think we can," the shirts read. "UCI basketball."
They could, and what was more, they did. The Anteaters, who entered the Big West Conference tournament with a 6-21 record, pulled off an 88-67 upset of top-seeded UC Santa Barbara in the first round Friday night in front of 4,134 at Long Beach Arena.
Irvine plays fifth-seeded Pacific (13-15) in a semifinal tonight, and suddenly, a team with the second-worst record in school history is two victories from the NCAA tournament. With regular-season champion Nevada Las Vegas barred because it is ineligible for the NCAA tournament, every team remaining thinks it has a chance.
"We felt this way all year," said Irvine Coach Rod Baker, who gave his players the T-shirts just before the game. "We're a team in progress. From Oct. 15 on, we were trying to get a little better each day.
"We wanted to play this weekend. Now we want to play one more weekend."
The Gauchos, led by Lucius Davis' 30 points, were bounced from the tournament with a 20-8 record. Irvine, at 7-21, has fewer victories than the Gauchos do losses. But it is Irvine that still feels confident it has a shot at the NCAA tournament. Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm said the Gauchos' chances are over.
"Yeah, they're gone," Pimm said. "I think they're zero, zilch, over with. You've got to have 21 or 22 wins in this kind of a year. You had to have more wins. We're just hoping we can get an NIT bid."
Irvine, which lost to Santa Barbara by two points and by six points this season, startled the Gauchos at times with full-court pressure, and finished with 12 steals.
Santa Barbara held a 34-32 halftime led, but Irvine took a 10-point lead about 3 1/2 minutes into the second half and kept it up, thanks largely to Jeff Von Lutzow's 17 second-half points. He finished with 21 points and nine rebounds. Gerald McDonald led Irvine with 24 points and five assists.
When Irvine played Santa Barbara in the Bren Center earlier this season, the Anteaters held a 10-point lead with seven minutes left before losing, 61-59.
This time, the lead bent under the strain of Santa Barbara's comeback efforts, but Irvine's defense never let it break.
"They started coming at us when we were up by 10," said Keith Stewart, who had 17 points. "I heard somebody in the huddle say, 'Remember, we were up by 10 before.' "
That earlier game was one of a string of frustrating ones for the Anteaters, who lost 11 in a row earlier this season. It was in a game that Irvine finally won that some earnest fans started chanting, 'I think we can, I think we can," to urge the team on.
"We've never made the plays down the stretch," Von Lutzow said. "Tonight at halftime, Coach told us we could do it."
Irvine made its free throws, hitting 30 of 37 in the game for 81%. The lead was never fewer than 10 points in the final five minutes.
"When we withstood it when it was seven, nine, 11, 15--when we withstood that stretch--I knew we'd be all right," Baker said. "I was worried about three, two, one. It never got to three, two, one."
The players kept their shirts tucked safely under their jerseys until the very end, but Von Lutzow, for one, couldn't resist a little early celebration. After giving Irvine a 15-point lead with 2:25 after a bold three-point shot, Von Lutzow threw his fists into the air over his head in triumph.
On the sideline, Baker screamed, "It ain't over yet!"
Neither is the Anteaters' season.
"This is wonderful. It is. It's very big," Baker said. "But we cannot afford to spend a lot of time enjoying it. This is going to be a long night, and tomorrow will be a long night. Yes, it's wonderful, but it isn't the end-all and be-all of this weekend. It's just the beginning."
UC Irvine is 0-2 this season against Pacific, its opponent in the second round of the Big West Conference tournament tonight. Pacific defeated Irvine, 65-59, in Stockton and took a 79-66 victory in the Bren Center.
* MIKE PENNER
UC Irvine's upset of UC Santa Barbara was historic on many levels. C21