UC Irvine's goal of getting a 3-0 jump start in the Big West Conference for the first time in 14 years had turned into a pipe dream, oh, about five minutes into Wednesday night's game against UC Santa Barbara.
The Anteaters made only one of their first 11 shots and the Gauchos hit eight of their first 12. And with just more than seven minutes elapsed, even the pipe dream had gone up in smoke. Santa Barbara led, 21-3, and the 3,914 in the Thunderdome were rockin' and rollickin'.
"We were down right away by what, 100?" Irvine Coach Rod Baker asked. "It was just a long, long road back. And it wasn't like we could say, 'OK, you guys in yellow [Santa Barbara] hold off and let us get the game manageable again."
The next 33 minutes were pretty much superfluous, but the Gauchos and their fans enjoyed it as Santa Barbara rolled to an 84-66 victory.
"This might be one of the two or three arenas [in the conference] where the fans make a big difference," Baker said. "Especially when [the Gauchos] are going good. When these fans smell blood, they know how to help finish it off."
The same could be said for the Santa Barbara players. When Irvine (5-5 and 2-1 in the Big West) tried to rally with a full-court press, the Gauchos (5-4, 2-1) used their quickness and raced downcourt for layups. And when Irvine did make a run in the second half, they hit a couple of clutch three-pointers to turn the momentum.
Irvine put together a 10-0 spurt midway through the second half to cut the Santa Barbara lead to seven (57-50) with 8 minutes 38 seconds remaining, but guard Danee Prince, who hit four of six three-point attempts and scored 20 points, buried a long-range three.
Then the Anteaters closed to within eight with 6:44 left, but Bakir Allen drilled a three-pointer, and so it went.
Irvine, which had dominated its first two Big West opponents--Pacific and San Jose State--with solid inside play, worked the ball underneath in each of its first four possessions but had only one point and two turnovers to show for it. Forward Shaun Battle and center Paul Foster, who were a combined 18 of 21 last Thursday against San Jose State, made only five of 13 this time. And forward Kevin Simmons, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Spartans, scored five points and grabbed two rebounds.
"We fought back, but we just never took the step up to the next level," Simmons said. "Basically, they played really hard and we didn't play anywhere near our capabilities."
Santa Barbara, behind sophomore center Kealon Wallace, was doing just fine in the post. Wallace had a career-high 25 points and combined with forward Mark Flick to pull down 26 rebounds as the Gauchos dominated the Anteaters on the boards, 42-29.
Irvine guard Raimonds Miglinieks, who began the game leading the nation in assists with a 9.1 average, got the ball inside early but his teammates weren't finishing. Then he tried to score over the Gaucho defense, but continued to struggle with his outside shooting.
Miglinieks, who was fourth in the Big West last season in three-pointers made, was one for nine Wednesday night and has connected on only two of his 18 attempts during conference play.