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 these are wild and crazy times in the comparatively cozy campus gym the Anteaters call home.
The 1,629 spectators who packed Crawford Hall--and the approximately 100 more that watched on closed-circuit TV at the campus pool--had plenty to celebrate.
Irvine clinched second place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. with a 95-88 win over ninth-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, a team the Anteaters had previously upset, 99-92, only 12 days before.
The victory, the Anteaters' sixth in their last seven games, gave Irvine a 16-10 overall mark and a 12-5 record in PCAA play.
Las Vegas hadn't lost twice to the same team in one season since 1982-83, when Fresno State got its second win over the Rebels with a victory in the championship game of the PCAA tournament. Now, Irvine has beaten the Rebels twice in the same month.
The second win came perilously 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 in the next minute to cut it to 91-88 with 11 seconds left.
Irvine guard Scott Brooks hit two free throws with nine 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 that saw the Crawford Hall crowd depart from its usually sedate manner.
Said Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan: "The people around campus are starting to get into basketball. Too bad it's almost March."
Those in attendance saw Irvine sharpshooter Johnny Rogers gun down the Rebels for the second time this season. Rogers, who had a career-high 41 points in the win at Las Vegas on Feb. 15, had a game-high 32 this time on 12-of-18 shooting. Murphy added 27 points as the Anteaters' front-court tandem shot over and through a Las Vegas defense that seemed to turn soft whenever it saw an Anteater. Las Vegas has only five regular-season losses in the last four years, and three of those have been to Irvine.
"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."
Irvine'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 foul. By game's end, four Las Vegas players had fouled out, including Armon Gilliam, who had a team-high 24 points before getting his fifth foul with 9:51 to play.