Anteaters' Historic Numbers Befuddle Baker

The biggest upset in the history of Big West basketball tournaments was happening Friday night, falling into place all around Rod Baker, and the UC Irvine head coach couldn't believe his eyes.

Not when he looked at the scoreboard, although the numbers were certainly That's Incredible stuff--six-game winner UC Irvine, up by 15 over 20-game winner UC Santa Barbara with 2 minutes 12 seconds to play.

No, Baker's laser-intense stare was focused on his 6-foot 9-inch junior forward, Jeff Von Lutzow, who had just hit a three-point jumper on one end of the court, grabbed a rebound on the other end and was using a break in the action to thrust both arms, triumphantly, in the air.

Moments later, Baker was applying a full-court press to both of Von Lutzow's eardrums.

"You can't print what I told him," Baker said, but the edited-for-family viewing version was provided by a courtside interpreter, a Mr. Von Lutzow of Glendora:

"He said, 'Jeff, the game's not over yet. Go out there and get some more rebounds.' "

Or something close to that.

Baker had seen this team stumble too many times--21 out of 27 times, to be precise.

He had seen this team cough up a 10-point second-half lead to the same opponent--virtually melting under the Bren Center lights as UC Santa Barbara snuck out of the building with a two-point triumph in late January.

When you can count all your victories on one hand and a thumb, you can count on nothing.

So Von Lutzow listened and, for the next two minutes and 12 seconds, raised his arms only to snare missed jump shots.

Two minutes 12 seconds later, Baker and Von Lutzow were face to face again, and cheek to cheek, hugging in front of the Irvine bench and below a Long Beach Arena scoreboard that carried the best news an Anteater had seen since the 1980s.

UCI 88, UCSB 67 This was history, on a good many levels.

For the first time, the eighth-seeded team in a Big West tournament had defeated the top-seeded team in a Big West tournament.

For only the second time, a top-seeded team had been eliminated from a Big West tournament by a margin of greater than 20 points.

For the first time since March, 1988, Irvine had won a basketball game that actually meant something. That would have been Irvine 74, Nevada Las Vegas 70 in the '88 Big West semifinals, back when Wayne Engelstad was still stuffing basketballs when he wasn't stuffing his face, back when Bill Mulligan was still enjoying Irvine basketball games, back when Nevada Las Vegas still qualified for Big West tournaments.

If UNLV had been eligible this year, this result would have never been possible. Ten-team conference, eight-team tournament . . . and Irvine finished ninth. For Irvine, there would have been no way in if NCAA sanctions hadn't canceled UNLV's boarding passes to Long Beach and beyond.

So the team that didn't belong in the tournament now belongs in the semifinals, set for tonight's 7 o'clock match against 13-15 Pacific. And the team that belonged in an NCAA subregional, 20-8 Santa Barbara, is out and headed nowhere, unless the Gauchos follow the derisive siren call orchestrated by Irvine rooters late in the second half:

"NIT! NIT!"

And what was that play-by-play call dancing in Anteater heads, one week hence, if and when?

"Don May, backing in on Christian Laettner . . . "

"We want to play next weekend," Baker told the assembled press without flinching. "Our short-term goal was to make the Big West Tournament; that was a good goal for a team that hasn't been in this tournament for a while. But our long-term goal was to play one more week.

"You may think I'm crazy, but that's what we want to do. And that's what we're going to do."

There is power in positive thinking, and Baker pressed the idea to the point of dressing his players in "I Think We Can" T-shirts, but the proof is in the basket. For too long this season, Irvine couldn't put a basketball through one. The Anteaters shot 42.5% from the field during the regular season, the worst performance by an Irvine team in 25 years. And in the first half Friday, the Anteaters were shooting again by rote--28 field goals attempted, 11 field goals made, 39.3%.

That's where Von Lutzow came in.

A nondescript one for four in the first half, Von Lutzow began the second by sinking a jump shot . . . and then a three-pointer . . . and then two free throws . . . and then a follow-up, fallaway jump shot . . . and then two more free throws . . . and then the three-point bombshell from the baseline that set in motion the premature celebration.

Von Lutzow was five for five in the second half, en route to 21 points, and he pulled down a game-high nine rebounds. His baskets keyed Irvine's unfathomable runaway and, in Baker's words, "Every rebound that mattered, Jeff got."

Von Lutzow also got a little carried away by Baker's pregame psyche job, which is not surprising from someone nicknamed "The Patient," as in Mental Ward, by his teammates. Baker's pump-you-up rhetoric went right to Von Lutzow's head, which came very close to getting him into trouble--and bumming rides to school off his girlfriend.

"It's funny," Von Lutzow said, "but I've been telling friends all week that we were going to win this game. I knew it. I was so confident that I was willing to bet my truck on it. One of my good friends was going to take me up on it."

Von Lutzow felt this way, this very strange way, because "we played them tough at our place and at their place (an 80-74 Gaucho victory). We knew we matched up with them and figured they'd be overlooking us. I thought this game was up for anybody to take."

So he kept his truck, and he kept his wits, and, perhaps most surprisingly, he kept his eyes open all game. Von Lutzow didn't want Baker to know this, but Irvine's leading scorer didn't get to bed until 4:30 Friday morning--three hours before the Anteaters' team breakfast.

"I was writing a paper for Anthropology 139B," Von Lutzow claimed. "It was on meditation and yoga."

And after meditating a bit on UCI 88, UCSB 67?

"Maybe I'll write another one tonight."

The theme could be Amazing Basketball Victories of Our Time. Nah. No one would ever believe it.

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