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Cal State Fullerton Wins an Ugly One : Basketball: Titans assume top spot in Big West Conference with a 74-68 victory over UC Irvine.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UC Irvine-Cal State Fullerton rivalry has produced some great games over the years.

And then there was Tuesday night.

In the first half, Irvine had 12 turnovers, missed a slew of close-in shots, including two dunks, and twice had a player knock a rebound out of a teammate’s hands. Fullerton shot 39% from the field and still led by eight at halftime.

The second half wasn’t much prettier, but the Anteaters made it close for a while, rallying to grab a one-point lead before fading and falling, 74-68, in their Big West opener in front of 2,108 in the Bren Center.

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Fullerton, picked to finish last by the media and Big West coaches in preseason polls, is alone in first place in the conference with a 2-0 mark. The Titans (4-6 overall) have won four consecutive at Irvine, which dropped to 4-4 and 0-1.

“When everyone was talking about where Fullerton was supposed to end up, nobody took into consideration their quickness,” Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. “They shut down the passing lanes inside that we normally have and they got open shots with that quickness.”

It was quickly evident that this was going to be a weird one. The last time these teams played, Irvine guard Chris Brown scored 30 points. Tuesday night, he scored two.

And Fullerton has been surviving on the physical inside play of center Winston Peterson. Peterson, who was double-teamed much of the game, finished with 15 points. But he had just six at halftime and six of his second-half points came on uncharacteristic top-of-the-key jumpers.

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So it probably should have come as little surprise that the unlikely hero for the Titans would be guard James French, who had been shooting 21% from the field. French scored 16, including seven in the final four minutes 24 seconds of the game as the Titans turned a 63-61 lead into a six-point victory.

“That’s the longest slump I’ve ever been in,” French said. “No matter what I did, things didn’t seem to go right. Tonight, I just tried to get into the flow of the game.”

Irvine trailed by 13 (45-32) with 14 minutes remaining when the Anteaters, who hadn’t played in 10 days, seemed to awaken from their funk. With senior forward Mark Odsather and point guard Raimonds Miglinieks scoring 17 of Irvine’s next 23 points, the Anteaters took their only lead of the night, 55-54, after a short Shaun Battle jumper with 8:49 to play.

Baker, thinking the game was back “under control,” made three substitutions and lost the momentum.

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“I was playing for the game, not the moment,” Baker said. “If we had gone two, three or four more possessions with the team that got us back in the game, we might have been able to put it away. I just didn’t feel we needed to milk anybody to death there. But I’ll take responsibility for that.”

The Anteaters, who have been winning with depth and balanced scoring, may have gone to the bench one too many times. But with Brown, who picked up his fourth foul just 1 1/2 minutes into the second half, sidelined and forward Michael Tate having an off night--he finished with four points--Miglinieks, Odsather and freshman forward Kevin Simmons were forced to carry the offensive burden.

“This really hurts, I don’t know what else to say,” Odsather said. “It’s one we thought we could take. We just stood and let them take control in the first half. I don’t want to blame it on the layoff, but we didn’t execute and things certainly didn’t go our way.”

The Titans are running with just the opposite feeling.

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“Every win is a great win for our program,” first-year Fullerton Coach Bob Hawking said.


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