It was big-game time in the Big West Conference Thursday night, and UC Irvine rose to the occasion.
The Anteaters took sole possession of first place with a 72-70 victory over Nevada in front of 7,643 in Lawlor Center, dodging two bullets in the final 30 seconds.
Forward Kevin Simmons blocked a shot by Brian Green to turn back the Wolf Pack once before Raimonds Miglinieks made a free throw to give Irvine the two-point lead with eight seconds to go. Nevada’s Richard Brown drove the ball quickly downcourt, and got off an off-balance layup that could have tied the score, but it missed.
“It was a big win for us,” Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. “We dug in when we needed to. No matter what happens the rest of the way, we showed we could dig it out.”
It marked the first time Irvine has been in first place this late in a regular-season conference race. The 1981-82 team started 6-0, but lost its next game to co-leader Fresno State and finished second.
Miglinieks scored a career-high 27 points to lift Irvine to 8-6, 5-2 in the Big West. Nevada, which came into the game as the co-leader, dropped to 11-6, 4-3 in the conference.
Miglinieks was nine of 15 from the field, including six of 10 on three-point shots. Simmons had 16 points to go with what he called “probably one of the biggest blocks of my life.”
Not long before Simmons’ big defensive play, Irvine lost the ball after a Miglinieks miss from outside stopped the shot clock and gave Nevada the ball. Baker protested the call. “I know there were seven seconds on the clock and when they stopped the clock when Raimonds’ shot didn’t hit anything.”
Baker said he stretched out that protest because he wanted to give his team as much rest as possible.
Miglinieks was rolling the rest of the night. “Raimonds got open shots and he made them,” Baker said. “It was one of those nights where we needed a pick-me-up and Raimonds gave it to us.”
Miglinieks, the national leader in assists, made the most of his own opportunities this time. “I felt good,” he said. “If I’m open I’ll take the shots. If I’m not I’ll get it to someone. This time I was open. But this was a big game for the team. Nevada is one of the better teams, so we had to play tough.” Nevada won all three games between the two teams last season, including an 88-69 victory in the semifinals of the Big West postseason tournament.
Miglinieks compared it to Irvine’s early season victory against St. John’s. “We had to play physical, the way we did in that game,” he said.
The Anteaters managed a 41-38 rebounding advantage and outshot Nevada from the field, 45.5% to 40.3%.
Center Daniel Watts had 19 points and Green finished with 17 for Nevada. “We couldn’t guard Watts, I know that,” Baker said. “At least we got him to take some jump shots later instead of dunking the ball. He’s a good player.”
“We lost the game on defense,” said Nevada Coach Pat Foster. “Either they played awfully well or we did not play that well.”
The Anteaters had the upper hand through much of the first half, thanks to strong play by Miglinieks, who had 14 points at the break.
After a 13-13 tie, Irvine went out to 21-15 lead with Miglinieks hitting twice from three-point range. The biggest Anteater lead of the half was 27-19 with slightly more than seven minutes remaining.
The Wolf Pack came back to cut the lead to 29-28 when Green scored on a fast-break layup, but finished the first half with a layup by Battle and a basket by Miglinieks to lead, 40-36, at halftime.