Those bullies from Santa Barbara came to Crawford Hall Saturday night seemingly intent on kicking sand in the faces of some lightweights from Irvine. The word was out on the Anteaters: Sure, these guys can shoot, but what will they do when push comes to shove?
When the final elbow was thrown and the referees sent both teams to their corners for the last time, UC Irvine was ahead on all cards, leaving the floor with a 99-88 decision in front of 1,400 spectators.
The win leaves Irvine alone in third place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. with a 4-2 record, 8-7 overall. Santa Barbara is 2-5, 7-9.
Senior forward Tod Murphy led the Anteaters with 22 points, surpassing two-time All-American Kevin Magee as the third-leading career scorer in Irvine history. Johnny Rogers added 18 points and a game-high 8 rebounds, and sophomore Wayne Engelstad came off the bench to score a season-high 16 points. Six players scored in double figures for Irvine.
Afterward, Irvine players were more interested with the statement they tried to make on the court than with the statistics they had accumulated. This team is tired of being pushed around.
"Irvine's supposed to be soft," guard Joe Buchanan said. "We've got to get rid of that little rep."
Buchanan and Murphy were central figures in three incidents in which Santa Barbara tried to get a little, uh, forceful with the Anteaters. Murphy exchanged words and stares with the Gauchos' Scott Fisher early in the second half, then was visibly angry after he was fouled from behind on a breakaway by Khris Fortson. The Gauchos were called for 27 fouls and had two players foul out and three finish the game with four fouls each.
"I was all set to dunk, and all of the sudden my legs were gone," Murphy said. "Then, there was the play early in the second half when Fisher got me in the face. I'm not gonna take that.
"You can't let them try to intimidate you. If they do, they've got you right where they want you."
The outbreaks of emotion helped Irvine recover from a rather lethargic stretch in the second half in which the Anteaters saw a 17-point lead dwindle to four points. The Gauchos outscored Irvine, 20-4, over a span of almost five minutes to cut the deficit to 64-60 with 9:50 remaining.
But a baseline jumper by Buchanan, Murphy's twisting shot in the lane and an inspired burst from Engelstad combined to hold off the Santa Barbara comeback. Engelstad, much hyped and much maligned last season as a freshman, scored 9 of his 16 in the last eight minutes.
"I kind of like coming off the bench," he said. "You're not expected to do as much. You can just go out there and have fun."
Fisher had a game-high 27 points for the Gauchos, including 14 of his team's first 16. The senior forward was 12 of 19 from the floor, leading a team that shot 62.1% (36 of 58) from the field, and still lost on points.
"That's a 2-5 team?" Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan asked. "That's scary. I just want someone to tell me when our easy ones are gonna come in this conference."