This was a basketball game, uncharted territory for UC Irvine this season. There was actual doubt as to its outcome. After weeks of being everyone's patsy, the Anteaters made a game of it.
In the end, the result was the same. Pacific's 63-52 victory in front of 981 at the Bren Center will go down as the 10th consecutive loss for the winless Anteaters. Still, the players, and their coach, could talk about what might have been.
Not bad considering this was a matchup between what is considered the Big West Conference's best team and what has certainly been its worst. Yet, for more than 30 minutes, it was tough to tell the two apart.
The gap widened significantly in the final eight minutes. Pacific (10-1, 1-0) closed the game with a 14-3 run, as Irvine (0-10, 0-1) went eight minutes without a field goal.
"For 30-plus minutes we were every bit as good as they were," Coach Rod Baker said.
For the last eight, Irvine was every bit as bad as it has been.
This time, though, the reasons went a beyond poor play. Point guard Lamarr Parker sprained an ankle with 8 minutes 9 seconds left. Parker had scored 16 points before the injury and the score was tied, 49-49, when he went down. He scored two points after he returned.
"Lamarr had been making the plays for us," Baker said. "He had scored and got guys open and made his free throws. He was not the same player when he came back."
It might have been different with a healthy Parker. Then again, it might not have mattered, as Irvine fell into some familiar habits.
The Anteaters had only five turnovers in the first half and 16 for the game, well below their average. But they committed three on consecutive possessions with Pacific leading, 52-49.
"We had them on the ropes," said forward Brian Johnson, who scored 16 points. "I know we could have beaten that team. Maybe this was a confidence builder, but you can't be happy about a loss."
At least there were some things to feel good about.
The Anteaters had a 39-31 advantage in rebounds. It's the first time this season the Tigers have been outrebounded. Irvine had 20 offensive rebounds. Georgetown had only six offensive rebounds in a 73-56 loss to Pacific two weeks ago.
"I think we were a little more focused tonight and a little more willing to compete," Baker said. "Maybe we were a little tired of everything that had happened in the last few weeks."
That includes Baker, who worked players in one-on-one practice sessions this week. It seemed to have helped.
Irvine was much more tenacious on defense and was able to keep the ball away from Michael Olowokandi, Pacific's 7-foot center. Olowokandi had six points at halftime and finished with 17.
Meanwhile, Anteater forward Paul Foster, who had not been a factor this season, had eight points and six rebounds in the first half. He had four offensive rebounds, including three in the first two minutes. Parker was equally effective, scoring 13 of his points in the first half.
As a result, the Anteaters led, 30-24, at halftime. It was the first time this season they took a lead into the second half. It didn't last. Irvine missed its first nine shots in the second half.
Pacific scored the first 11 points in the second half, which started a 17-2 run to take a 41-32 lead. Olowokandi scored nine of his 17 points during that stretch.
But, for the first time this season, Irvine didn't fold. Johnson scored 11 points in a six-minute stretch, including a layup that tied the score, 49-49.
"We just forgot everything that happened to us before tonight," Parker said. "We played the conference's best team even tonight."