A sign held by one UC Irvine fan Thursday night in Crawford Hall read, "We Want Duke." Granted, that's getting a bit carried away, but what the heck. These were wild and crazy times in the comparatively cozy campus gym the Anteaters call home.
The 1,629 spectators that packed Crawford Hall--and about 100 more that watched on closed circuit TV from poolside at the campus pool--had plenty to celebrate.
UC Irvine clinched second place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. with a 95-88 basketball victory over ninth-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, a team the Anteaters had upset, 99-92, 12 days before.
The victory--the Anteaters' sixth in their last seven games--gives UCI a 12-5 record in PCAA play and 16-10 overall mark. New Mexico State fell to 10-7 with an 87-79 loss to San Jose State at Las Cruces, giving the Anteaters a two-game lead over the Aggies with one game remaining.
UNLV hasn't lost twice to the same team in one season since 1982-83, when Fresno State got its second win over the Rebels in the championship game of the PCAA Tournament. UCI has beaten the Rebels twice in the same month.
The second win came close to slipping away. Irvine had a 91-78 lead with 1:12 to play, but saw it quickly dwindle as the Rebels scored 10 straight points over the next minute to cut it to 91-88 with 11 seconds to play.
UCI guard Scott Brooks hit two free throws with 9 seconds left to make it 93-88, and forward Tod Murphy provided the final margin with two more free throws with one second remaining. All that was left was the celebration, one which saw the usually sedate Crawford Hall crowd go a little nuts.
Said UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan: "The people around campus are starting to get into basketball. Too bad it's almost March."
Those in attendance saw UCI sharpshooter Johnny Rogers gun down the Rebels for the second time this season. Rogers, who had a career-high 41 points in the victory over UNLV on Feb. 15, had a game-high 32 on 12-of-18 shooting in the rematch. Murphy added 27 points, as the Anteaters' frontcourt tandem shot over and through a UNLV defense that seems to turn oh-so soft whenever it sees an Anteater. UNLV has only five regular-season losses in the last four years. Three of those have come against UCI.
"We match up really well against Vegas," Mulligan said, "better than we do against a lot of teams.
"That doesn't mean we're a better team. We just match up well. We run at them. You have to go at Vegas the way they play defense. If you just sit back and pass it around the perimeter, they'll steal it."
UCI's plan to take the ball inside against the Rebels worked to near perfection. When it didn't produce a basket, it usually drew a UNLV foul. By game's end, four UNLV players had fouled out, including Armon Gilliam, who had a team-high 24 points before getting his fifth foul with 9:51 to play.
Rebounding is another alleged UNLV weakness, and it was apparent in this game. Rogers, Murphy and forward Wayne Engelstad combined for 27 rebounds. UCI finished with 41. UNLV had nine players combine for a total of 28.
Rogers said there are explanations why the Anteaters seem to be at their best against one of the few teams west of the Mississippi to merit a little national respect.
"I think it's probably their style of play," he said. "Plus, when you play Vegas, there's really not much pressure on you. You're in a no-lose situation. You can just go out and have fun."
Rogers has had more than his share. In the four times he has played the Rebels in his two-year UCI career, he has scored 129 points.
The 6-foot 10-inch senior knew things were going his way late in the first half when he got off a shot from the baseline with UNLV forward Eldridge Hudson defending him the way a linebacker defends a running back. It was all Rogers could do to keep his feet and throw the ball in the direction of the basket. The kicker is that the shot went in, and Rogers converted the free throw for a three-point play that tied the game, 32-32.
"I was just trying to draw a foul," Rogers said. "Maybe that shot's what got me going."
Rogers, who had 20 points by halftime of the last meeting with the Rebels, exceeded that by intermission in the rematch. He had 22, including 15 in the last 7 1/2 minutes. UNLV took its biggest lead of the first half at 32-27 on Hudson's drive at the 8:09 mark.
From that point, however, Irvine outscored the Rebels, 25-8, and left the floor with a 52-40 lead. Rogers was 8 of 11 from the field and 4 of 5 from the free-throw line in the first half.