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Anteaters’ Recent Education Has Been Bad News for the Rest of Big West Conference

Here’s a news flash that nine Big West basketball coaches don’t want to hear: The Anteaters are playing up to their potential.

Everyone knew the talent was there and dreaded the day Irvine put the whole package together. Well, a funny thing has happened to the Anteaters on the way to first place.

“This team knows how to win now,” sophomore forward Kevin Simmons said.

What have the Anteaters learned?

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* They’ve learned to take advantage of what opponents are giving.

During Thursday night’s battle for first place in Reno, Nevada decided it would rather have Raimonds Miglinieks shoot than pass inside. Miglinieks took 10 three-pointers, made six and Irvine won, 72-70. Saturday night at Utah State, the Anteaters made the extra pass, found the open man and shot 51% from the floor. Five players had nine or more points in a 78-72 victory.

* They’ve learned to hold on to a lead.

Absent from the road sweep that vaulted Irvine (9-6 overall and 6-2 in Big West) into first were the dead spots, those all-too-common doldrums when the Anteaters would go four or five minutes without scoring. Irvine was never behind after the first six minutes at Reno. Against Utah State, Irvine took the lead at 5-2 on Simmons’ three-pointer 1 1/2 minutes into the game and never relinquished it.

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* They’re learning that style points don’t end up on the scoreboard.

Also missing last week was trash-talking, chest-thumping, strutting and the flashy-dunk-attempt-over-sure-layup approach to the game.

* Most important, they seem to have learned the necessity of playing hard--especially on defense--every night.

“The tougher players won tonight,” Utah State Coach Larry Eustachy said Saturday night. “The tough team won.”

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That’s an adjective not usually associated with Irvine teams and the transformation has been a wonderful--and scary, if you’re a Big West opponent--sight to behold.

“We played against some really good big guys and I thought our big guys defended really well, especially out away from the basket,” Coach Rod Baker said. “We took a bunch of charges and some others that were called the other way, but the point is, we were there.

“We dug in, we answered challenges, we weren’t concerned with the crowd and we gutted out some situations.”

They also put a lot of talent on the floor.

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“Miglinieks makes that team go,” Eustachy said, “but they have a great collection of players. They have four guys who will be all-conference before they go.”

Eustachy’s Big Four includes Miglinieks, Simmons, sophomore captain Brian Keefe and senior forward Shaun Battle. Against the Aggies, Battle made six of nine from the field, four of six from the free-throw line and had six rebounds.

Unfortunately for Baker, he’s fretting about Thursday, when Irvine puts its sparkling new tough-and-talented reputation on the line against second-place UC Santa Barbara (9-8, 6-3). The Gauchos easily handled the Anteaters in Santa Barbara on Jan. 10, jumping ahead, 21-3, and rolling to an 84-66 victory.

“I hope everyone else can enjoy these [victories], because I can’t,” he said. “It’s a [lousy] way to live, really. Those are gone and I have to worry about the next one.”

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*

Bye-Bye: The Big West’s new postseason tournament format gives the regular-season’s first-and second-place finishers a first-round bye. They are seeded directly into the semifinals.

*

Come undone: The men’s volleyball team is a reminder that winning streaks invariably end. Only last week, basking in the glow of a 4-0 start, Coach Andy Read said his players had started playing really well together.

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It didn’t help them last week as they opened Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play with two losses at home to BYU.

“We start a senior, two or three juniors and always two and sometimes three freshmen,” Read said. “Starting a true freshman is something in this league, yet alone two or three. So there are going to be bumps in the road.

“Now we have to respond. This is the time that guys like [juniors] Chris Harger and Evan Alexander have to say, ‘As bad as this feels, it ain’t 2-20. Now we know we’re good enough to win, so let’s just get back in the gym and get ready to go.’ ”

The Anteaters, who were 2-20 in both 1993 and ’94, were 9-14 last year, coming up a victory or two shy of making the conference playoffs.

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“We’ll have almost the same group for two years, but our goal is to make the playoffs this year,” Read said. “We have the tools in our gym to win enough matches to make it to the playoffs. Now, it’s up to the coaching staff and the players to make it happen.

“The level of play in this league is fierce, but when it comes to coaching or playing college volleyball, you don’t want to be anywhere else.”

*

Play time: Freshman Clay McKnight made a steal against UC Santa Barbara, dribbled down court and immediately fired up a three-pointer that missed.

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“I could hear Coach Baker yelling, ‘Pull it out, Clay, pull it out,’ but I never pass up an open three,” said McKnight, who set a county high school record at Mater Dei with 131 three-pointers last year.

Baker spoke to McKnight after the game, but it wasn’t to scold him.

“Clay McKnight’s a player and I’ve got to let him play,” Baker said. “I said, ‘If you feel it, go ahead.’ ”

Saturday night in Utah, McKnight made another steal and immediately popped another three. This one went in--as did the next one he took a minute later--and Irvine jumped ahead, 66-54.

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Anteater Notes

Athletic Director Dan Guerrero was inducted into the UCLA Baseball Hall of Fame Saturday. He was the Bruins’ starting second baseman for three seasons and batted .320 before playing four years in the Italian major leagues. . . . The men’s basketball team is hosting the first alumni game Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Bren Center. All former Irvine players are invited to attend. The game will be followed by a barbecue on the Bren’s Berry Terrace. For more information, call 824-6980.


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