Bob Hawking didn't like what he saw. UC Irvine point guard Raimonds Miglinieks had that familiar look of concentration on his face and the Cal State Fullerton coach could see his team's season coming to an end.
The overachieving Titans had taken the underachieving Anteaters to the final couple minutes of Thursday's Big West tournament game and the outcome was still in doubt. But the junior from Riga, Latvia, was doing his thing and that meant only bad things were in store for Fullerton.
Irvine trailed by two with 1 minute 16 seconds remaining when the Anteaters called a timeout and set up their bread-and-butter play, the pick and roll. When two Titan defenders rolled with freshman forward Kevin Simmons leaving Miglinieks wide open, he buried a three-pointer and UCI led, 70-69.
Then, when Winston Peterson's jump hook spun off the rim, Miglinieks was there for the rebound. With 43 seconds left, Miglinieks whipped a pass through the key to Simmons, whose layup put the Anteaters up by three and on their way to a 76-69 victory in front of 3,711 in the Thomas & Mack Center.
Irvine (12-15) meets top-seeded Utah State at 6 tonight in the quarterfinals.
"He may not be a big-time athlete, but he's a big-time point guard," Hawking said. "He understands the game and he's totally unselfish. He understands how to use the angles. He's strong and knows how to use his strength.
"And he took control of the game when he had to. That's the sign of a great leader. He just knows how to win."
Fullerton (9-20) used a diamond-and-one defense--one guard harassing Miglinieks and the other four Titans playing a zone--to try to keep him from repeating his performance of Saturday night, when he had a career-high 25 points and 10 assists during Irvine's victory at Titan Gym.
The ploy worked well in the first half. Miglinieks had two points, four assists and five turnovers at the break. His favorite target, Big West freshman of the year Simmons, had only seven points. And the Titans led, 39-33.
But Irvine made some adjustments and played an inspired couple of minutes to open the second half. Miglinieks dished off three quick assists and the Anteaters led, 42-41, with 17:58 remaining. But Irvine again lapsed into a state of lethargy and Fullerton led by nine with 11 minutes to play.
"We played maybe eight minutes of great basketball and today it was good enough to win," forward Mark Odsather said. "We did a lot of standing around. It wasn't a pretty game."
Miglinieks went one dribble farther, describing the game as "ugly."
"They play us very physical," he said, "but this was a good game for us. When was the last time we came back after trailing at the half?"
How about Dec. 10, against University of San Diego?
"There is absolutely no question they played harder than we did in the first half," Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. "We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. We're playing pretty well right now and we need to just go ahead and play and see what happens. So we tried to turn it up a notch."
The outmanned Titans, whose starting five all played 29 or more minutes, were too tired to maintain their tenacious defense in the game's waning minutes.
"It was great effort by our kids, but we got a little leg-weary at the end," Hawking said. "Raimonds was penetrating and breaking us down defensively and they started getting inside shots."
Peterson, who finished his career with a 19-point, six-rebound effort, had 12 at halftime, but the Anteaters' inside defense improved in the second half and the Titans shot only 25% from the floor after the intermission.
"We've played them three times now and it's sort of like brothers going at it in the front yard," Hawking said. "Down the stretch, they knew what we wanted to do, they defended it and we didn't counter with other options. That was the difference."
That, and a former Red Army conscript who flings basketballs past unsuspecting opponents into the arms of sometimes unsuspecting teammates. Simmons was on the receiving end most often and finished with a game-high 21 points and 15 rebounds.
Miglinieks finished with eight points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and a couple of game-winning decisions in the final minutes.
Big West Notes
UNLV's three-point shooters found the range midway through the second half and the Rebels outscored San Jose State, 19-10, in the final eight minutes en route to a 77-66 victory in Thursday's other opening-round game. Guard Damien Smith, who made five of seven three-pointers, led Las Vegas with 23 points. The Rebels meet second-seeded New Mexico State at noon today.