UC Irvine looked across the Lawlor Events Center floor Saturday night and caught a glimpse of its past, a bottom-seeded team playing its best basketball of the year during the conference tournament.
During the past two tournaments, the Anteaters came in as the lowest seeded team and made a run at the automatic NCAA berth, brushing aside the Big West big boys in their quest. This year, it was San Jose State--a team that was 3-8 in conference play before winning six of seven to sneak into the six-team tournament--that had played its way into the semifinals.
Now Irvine knows how it feels to be the dead giant.
Irvine, second seeded after a 11-7 regular-season record which was the school's best in a decade, went down and out, 71-67, in front of 4,297.
San Jose State (12-16) meets Utah State (18-14) in the tournament championship today at noon. The Anteaters end their season at 15-12.
And just when Irvine figured it finally had found a way to stop Olivier Saint-Jean and beat the Spartans. A team that has played almost exclusively man-to-man defense all year, the Anteaters dropped back into a zone to cut off Saint-Jean's slashing drives and when Saint-Jean picked up two fouls in the first 52 seconds, Irvine must have been feeling pretty smug.
Saint-Jean had only two points at halftime and Irvine had an 11-point lead.
But Saint-Jean, who scored 20 points in the final 7 1/2 minutes when San Jose beat Irvine 10 days ago, poured in 24 second-half points, including two free throws with 11 seconds left.
"The two halves were certainly two totally different stories," San Jose Coach Stan Morrison said. "Their first-half defense was very well constructed and we really struggled. The second half, Olivier did some great things. He was brilliant at finding people and creating opportunities."
Saint-Jean hit a three-pointer to give the Spartans their first lead, 58- 57, with 6 minutes 5 seconds left in the game and then scored on a turnaround, 10-foot baseline jumper and an alley-oop jam as San Jose built a three-point lead. His two free throws put the Spartans ahead, 68-64, with one minute to play.
"He lit us up again," Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. "The last few games, he's been great. He's as good as there is inside the three-point line."
Saint-Jean was willing to admit that "things have been working" for him, but quickly added: "It's not about I, it's we."
The Anteaters charged out to a 15-5 lead as San Jose missed 10 of its first 11 shots. And the Anteaters were leading, 23-11, with eight minutes to play in the first half when San Jose went on a 12-0 run to tie score with 4:05 left before intermission. The Spartans, who shot 26% from the floor in the first half, didn't score again in the half, however, and Irvine led, 34-23, at halftime.
Big West player of the year Raimonds Miglinieks, who scored nine points and had four assists in the game at San Jose, had nine points and three assists at halftime and finished with 19 points and seven assists.
Irvine led by nine midway through the second half, but things began deteriorating in a hurry when Shaun Battle, who was playing in his first game since both his sprained wrists were placed in soft casts a month ago, fouled out with 6:29 to play. He was followed to the bench by Kevin Simmons who fouled out at 5:29.
"Any game where Brian [Keefe] and Clay [McKnight] don't hit a three- pointer, we're going to have a problem," said Baker, Big West coach of the year. "It got the point where we had to win with [Simmons and Battle] in the game and we weren't going to win it without them."
Irvine fans weren't the only ones hanging their heads, though. Big West officials can't be looking forward to the possibility of a team with 13 victories representing the conference in the NCAA tournament if the streaking Spartans beat Utah State today.