UC Irvine reached double figures in regular-season victories for the first time in the Rod Baker era Wednesday night.
It might be construed as a hollow victory of sorts, an 89-73 nonconference rout of a weak Cal State Northridge team which was playing without two starters. Still, for the Anteater seniors who have suffered alongside Baker over the past four seasons and were playing their final home game--and the 1,741 victory-starved fans in the Bren Center--it was a welcome respite from a season fraught with disappointment.
"I just tried to have fun," said senior forward Mark Odsather, who made seven of 10 shots from the field and led Irvine with 18 points. "I've just been so stressed out about my own performance and our performance, but tonight I didn't let it get to me.
"And every time you get a win, it's a positive step."
The Anteaters (10-15) have been taking baby steps forward and giant ones back. They had lost six of seven Big West Conference games going into Wednesday night, when they also earned their first winning record at home (7-5) in four seasons.
It's been hard for Irvine players to call the Bren "our house" in recent years without gagging.
And the Anteaters didn't seem to have much of a home-court advantage at the outset Wednesday. The game began as if neither team cared much about the outcome. Irvine shot 31% from the floor and still managed to lead by nine (33- 24) at halftime. The Matadors (7-19), with only two players taller than 6-feet-5 available for action, scored only two baskets inside the lane in the first half.
"I think we came out and played, went after it a little bit," Baker said. "If it's true that we were the better team, then we had to make that clear early. The game struggled early, both teams, but we didn't ever let it get away.
"We've been criticized lately for what we do when we're up at the half, so we talked about what we had to do."
The Anteaters, who have lost six games after leading at halftime, missed just three shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The game became a rout when freshman Kevin Simmons, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes, hit a 10-foot turnaround jumper with 14 minutes 12 seconds left to put Irvine ahead, 50-33.
"It wasn't a lack of effort, maybe a lack of horses, but not effort," Northridge Coach Pete Cassidy said.
The Matadors played and lost to University of San Diego Tuesday night. And playing without center Peter Micelli, who was sick with the flu, and injured forward Ruben Oronoz, the Matadors were no match for the taller, stronger and more plentiful Anteater post players.
Forward Michael Dorsey and guards Ryan Martin and Cross Trenton combined to score 55 of Northridge's 73 points.
"They just came in one after another," said Dorsey, who played 35 minutes. "I had to deal with three different guys and they were all real strong. They had fresh legs and I didn't."
Junior forward Shaun Battle, playing what Baker called "probably his best game ever here," took advantage of the soft spot underneath and scored a season-high 14 points.
Irvine's slow start, the Matadors free-throw shooting--they made 20 of 26--and Baker's liberal use of the bench kept the game from becoming a blowout.
"It's always good to get a win," senior Khalid Channell said, smiling. "And I'm happy we could get this one for Coach Baker."
Reserve forward Leticia Oseguera scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the UC Irvine women's team rolled to a 73-49 nonconference victory over Cal State Northridge in the Bren Center. The Anteaters took 21 more shots from the field than the Matadors, who shot 38% from the field in the first half and trailed at intermission, 40-21. Guard Michelle Kahler had 10 points and five assists for the Anteaters. Lisa Vaillancourt led Northridge with 12 points.