At the start, 1984-85 looked as if it might be one of the best seasons in UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan's career.
Both the conference coaches and the media predicted that the Anteaters would finish third behind Nevada Las Vegas and Fresno State. The great expectations soon gave way to frustration, though, and Thursday afternoon at the Forum, Mulligan wound up his first losing season in 29 years of coaching.
Cal State Fullerton, a team that has been exceeding expectations all season, played what might have been its finest game of the season and beat the Anteaters, 79-68, in the first round of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament. UCI finished 13-17 overall.
The Titans (16-12), who beat Irvine twice during the regular season (including an 84-74 win Saturday), dominated from buzzer to buzzer in this one. While the first two were closer than the score indicated, this one was just the opposite.
Mulligan might have been tempted to throw in UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian's beloved towel if he could have gotten his hands on it.
There were some, including Irvine center Johnny Rogers, who thought Mulligan conceded victory a bit prematurely when he emptied his bench with 1:52 remaining and his team trailing by 11 points. Considering the PCAA's three-point rule and Fullerton's poor free-throw shooting skills, it seemed a little early to give up on a whole season.
"I didn't understand that," Rogers said. "I looked over at the bench in the second half, and he was just sitting back with his hands behind his head."
Mulligan, however, defended his move by saying: "The way some of them (the regulars) were playing, I don't think it made any difference. I'd like to be able to at least say we played hard, but I'm not even sure about that."
There was no lack of intensity on the Titans' part, however. Fullerton shot 52% from the floor, outrebounded Irvine, 40-35, and got 25 points from its bench. But most of all, the Titans exhibited the tenacious defense that has confounded almost every opponent this season.
Fullerton held Rogers, who was averaging 21.9 points per game, to just 14 and the always-consistent Tod Murphy to 18. But no Irvine starter shot better than 50% from the floor, and the usually accurate Anteaters were a dismal 37% as a team.
"I thought we played very well," Fullerton Coach George McQuarn said. "We were a little too aggressive at times in the first half and sent them to the line too much.
"But we're playing with confidence now. We've got players coming off the bench who were tentative early in the season but are playing with confidence now. And all of a sudden you start looking like a good coach."
Fullerton didn't get an especially effective game from senior Tony Neal, who finished with 8 points and 5 rebounds. Neal is usually a good indicator for the Titans' success--or lack thereof. But Kerry Boagni got off to a quick start with 14 first-half points and Kevin Henderson put the Anteaters away with a 15-point second half. Henderson led all scorers with 24, and Boagni finished with 16.
Irvine trailed by just five points, 35-30, at halftime and managed to move within one (41-40) early in the second half. But the Titans erupted for a 17-2 to take a 58-42 lead with 11:17 left.
"I thought this was going to be a difficult game," Neal said. "It's hard to beat anyone three times in a row. But we showed a lot of poise in the second half, and the play of our freshmen really adds an additional dimension to this team."
Freshmen Richard Morton, Henry Turner and Vincent Blow came off the bench to combine for 17 points and 11 rebounds. Their performance is a big plus for Fullerton. Due to a lack of depth, fatigue had been one of the Titans' biggest problems.
McQuarn was not quite ready to declare that his team is peaking at just the right moment, however.
"We played well this afternoon, but I don't know about tomorrow when we play the 'Dogs," he said, anticipating a Fresno State victory over UC Santa Barbara and a 9 p.m. semifinal matchup with the Bulldogs tonight. "We were humiliated up there (67-53 on Feb. 23). We played just awful then." Fullerton also beat Fresno State, 52-51, Feb. 4 at Fullerton.
Mulligan knows all about awful performances. But he's been around long enough to at least attempt to put things in perspective.
"I feel badly because we played terribly," Mulligan said. "We broke down in every phase of the game. I'm embarrassed, but then again I'm sure I'll be embarrassed another day, too."