GOLETA — UC Irvine senior forward Johnny Rogers has made his basketball reputation by scoring points, not by preventing them.
Rogers is often criticized for his defensive play, and claims that criticism is unjustified. Monday night, he got very defensive.
Rogers blocked three UC Santa Barbara shots in the final two minutes to help Irvine preserve a precarious lead and record an 87-79 win over UC Santa Barbara in front of 2,687 spectators in the UCSB Campus Events Center.
The win gives UCI an 11-5 record in Pacific Coast Conference play (15-10 overall) and a one-game lead over New Mexico State in the race for second place in the conference. It also marks the first time the Anteaters have won three straight games since Rogers and teammate Tod Murphy, who scored a game-high 29 points, have been in the same lineup.
"That's been the story of my career at Irvine," Rogers said. "We've been inconsistent."
It has certainly been the story of the Anteaters' 1985-86 season. Until recently , that is. UCI has now won five of its last six games, and appears to be reaching its peak at a most opportune point in the season. Home games against Nevada Las Vegas and Cal State Fullerton are all that remain before the start of the PCAA Tournament on March 6.
Much of Irvine's recent success can be attributed to Rogers' shooting. Entering Monday night's game, Rogers had scored 91 points in his last three outings. But it was Murphy who supplied most of the offense against the Gauchos. Rogers had 17 points, and made his biggest contribution in the final minutes.
Rogers went to the bench with his fourth foul with 6:28 to play, after attempting to block a Khris Fortson shot. UCI guard Joe Buchanan followed Rogers shortly thereafter, picking up his fourth foul with 5:29 left.
But at the 5:17 mark, Rogers and Buchanan were back in the game.
Said UCI Coach Bill Mulligan: "With five minutes to go, we went to a zone and put them back in. I said, 'My fate's not going to be decided with those guys on the bench."'
It turned out to be an astute decision. Rogers got a kind roll on a baseline jumper that gave the Anteaters an 81-77 lead with 1:49 to play. The next minute was a serious of swats.
Rogers came out to the free-throw line to block a shot by Gaucho center Scott Fisher with 1:35 left. Twenty seconds later, he rejected a Conner Henry shot, a block UCI guard Scott Brooks converted into a fast-break layup and an 83-77 Anteater lead. With 47 seconds left, Rogers blocked another Henry shot and Brooks again scored at the other end to make it 85-77.
In that brief span, Rogers may have blocked Santa Barbara from entering the PCAA Tournament. The Gauchos are 6-10 in conference play, 11-13 overall, and are in danger of elimination from the postseason tournament. Eight of the conference's 10 teams qualify. The Gauchos are in ninth place.
Santa Barbara looked like anything but a ninth-place team in the first half. Irvine shot 74.2% in the first half and left the floor trailing, 53-48. Fisher was 7 of 8 from the floor to lead UCSB to a 69.7% shooting performance. Richard Townsend, who came into the game shooting 34% from the field, was 4 of 5.
"We came in at halftime thinking they were shooting the lights out," Rogers said. "We weren't aware that we were shooting that well."
After the Gauchos extended their lead to 58-50 early in the second half, Murphy led a 12-2, UCI spurt that gave the Anteaters a 62-60 lead with 13:12 to play. Murphy accounted for 8 of the 12 points in the surge. He finished the game 11 of 15 from the field, 7 of 9 from the free-throw line despite sitting out practice since last week with pain in his lower back.
Santa Barbara had trouble matching its shooting success of the first half. The Gauchos were 11 of 32 from the floor (34.5%) in the second half.
Said Murphy: "I'd like to think that had something to do with our defense. Of course, with Johnny Rogers steppin' out and playing Akeem..."
Rogers would smile at that comparison. He's grown tired of hearing his name followed by the words "defensive liability."
Monday night, he was clearly an asset.