UC Irvine turned a blow-out into a blow-up Thursday night, losing a 16-point lead, its poise and finally the game.
A season that swelled with promise after a victory over St. John's in New York a month ago, was deflating faster than a punctured Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon after the Anteaters crashed to an 81-78 defeat against University of San Diego in front of 1,271 in the Sports Center.
Irvine (3-3) was rolling along with a 14-point lead early in the second half, when Coach Rod Baker picked up a technical complaining about a no-foul call on Brian Keefe's drive to the basket. That let the Toreros (4-3) cut the lead to 10.
Four minutes later, forward Michael Tate picked up his fourth foul on a charging call after a steal on the sideline, decided to punch the wall at the end of the court and got another technical. Brian Miles made two free throws and Irvine led by just two, 50-48.
A minute after that, forward Shaun Battle was called for his fourth foul and he ran off the court, through a corner door and out of the building. Assistant Mike McIlwain brought him back, but Battle fouled out a little later and then kicked over a chair and a trash can.
Meanwhile, the Toreros were putting together a rally that San Diego Coach Brad Holland said was the most memorable in his eight years of coaching.
"We're down by 16 with absolutely no chance to beat anybody, much less a team as good as Irvine," Holland said. "That's why I'm so proud. We didn't get down on each other, we stuck together and stuck to the game plan."
Sophomore Kevin Simmons had a career-high 27 points, Keefe scored 18 and Raimonds Miglinieks had 14 points and eight assists, but Irvine had nothing to be proud of after this one.
"I think we stopped guarding people, if in fact we ever were guarding anybody," Baker said. "They run a pretty good offense, but I thought we had taken them out of most of the things they do.
"Then we completely lost it defensively. I guess all our foul trouble made us a little more tentative."
Miglinieks picked up two fouls in the first 1 1/2 minutes of the game. It might have been an omen of some very bad things to come for Irvine, but the Anteaters were running up leads of 8-0, 15-4 and 29-13 and were having too much fun to worry.
Then it all began to slip away as they staggered, stumbled, cursed and cried. Still, they recovered to tie the game, 68-68, when Miglinieks hit two free throws with 3 minutes 22 seconds remaining.
With the game sliding from their grasp, the Anteaters regained their defensive intensity and the lead, 71-70, after a Miglinieks drive and short bank shot. They had the Toreros stymied with the shot clock winding down when Miles--a 6-foot-9 forward who had not hit a three-pointer this season--buried one from straight away.
Senior guard David Fizdale, who had 15 points and 13 assists, took control against Irvine's full-court press and his coast-to-coast driving layup with 40 seconds left put San Diego ahead by four.
And the Anteaters, who were one shot away from a victory over USC and a 4-1 record on Saturday, were back to starting from scratch at .500.
"There's a big difference between 4-2 and 3-3," Baker said, "just like there was a big difference between 4-1 and 3-2. This is the second time in a week we were in a position to win a ballgame and didn't get it."