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Battle Gets UC Irvine Out of Trouble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A not-so-funny thing happened to UC Irvine on the way to a rout of San Jose State Thursday night. But the Anteaters were still able to smile, if sheepishly, when it was over.

Irvine, putting on its most impressive show of offense this season, was cruising along with a 20-point lead early in the second half when the Spartans caught a spark, Irvine went dead at the free-throw line, and all of sudden it was a three-point game.

But the Anteaters--with a huge assist from senior forward Shaun Battle who scored eight of his career-high 27 points in the final four minutes--hung on for a 78-70 Big West victory in front of 1,880 in the Bren Center and earned their first 2-0 start in conference play in 10 years.

“I tried to tell them how big this win was,” Coach Rod Baker said, “but I don’t think they really understand. I think, from a history standpoint, some of you would point out that in the past we probably would have lost this game.”

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You don’t have to be a long-time suffering Anteater fan to know what Baker was talking about. Irvine (5-4) blew a 16-point lead and lost to San Diego only two weeks ago.

This, however, would have been an even more devastating defeat. The Anteaters’ offense was so good in the early going that with 16 minutes 54 seconds left in the game, the Spartans were shooting 68% from the floor and trailing by 19 points.

By halftime, Battle had made six of eight shots from the floor and already tied his previous career-high with 15 points. Point guard Raimonds Miglinieks, on his way to 14 assists, had eight and lost three when teammates were fouled and missed what would have been easy layups. And the Anteaters had 13 offensive rebounds.

Then . . .

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“All of sudden, it was like we had our eyes closed at the free-throw line,” Baker said. “We ran decent enough offense to get fouled but to keep coming up empty like that in those situations just tightened us up and tightened us up.”

San Jose (2-8, 1-1) was trailing, 61-41, with 14:55 to play. But the Spartans went on a 24-4 run. The 24 they earned with quickness and a lot of fast-break layups. The 4 was a gift from the Anteaters, who were an unbelievably inept five for 18 from the line in the second half.

Battle ended up making 11 of 14 shots and had eight rebounds, but his biggest contribution might have come on defense. With 4 1/2 minutes to play and Irvine leading, 67-64, the Spartans worked the ball underneath to Olivier Saint-Jean. But Battle cleanly stripped the ball loose as Saint-Jean went up for the shot and grabbed it for his third steal.

In the next two minutes, he scored on a dunk, a short follow shot and a driving layup, and grabbed a key rebound as Irvine regained control, 73-66.

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“Battle took our post men to school tonight,” San Jose Coach Stan Morrison said. “He was brilliant.”

Battle has been caught up in a vicious circle of a lack of fitness caused by injury and injury caused by a lack of fitness throughout much of his career. He has shin and knee problems still, but he seems willing to do whatever it takes to play through them.

“I really pushed hard this summer and in the preseason after Coach Baker and I had a talk about my fitness,” Battle said. “I try to do the same things every game, I guess tonight was just my night.”

And how do his legs feel?

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“Right now, fine,” he said, smiling. “But right now I’m just standing here.”

An hour earlier, however, he was very much on the move and his teammates were dutifully grateful.

“Shaun played the game of his life,” forward Michael Tate said, “and if he hadn’t, we would’ve lost.”


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