This was supposed to have been the season that Cal State Fullerton guard Kevin Henderson emerged as one of the top players in the West, a four-month stopover on the way to an NBA career.
It has been one of sitting on the bench biding time as the broken foot he suffered on Dec. 22, 1985 healed.
UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan had long feared that Henderson's return would come about the time of the PCAA tournament, and that his Anteaters would have the misfortune of watching Henderson regain his form.
That fear was realized Thursday night as Henderson scored 24 points to lead Fullerton to a 66-58 win over Irvine in the first round of the PCAA tournament before 9,613 spectators at the Forum.
Henderson made 9 of 11 shots in leading the Titans to their sixth straight win over Irvine and 10th in the last 12 meetings.
Fullerton (16-15) will meet top-seeded Nevada Las Vegas in a semifinal game tonight at 7. Irvine is out of the tournament with a record of 16-12.
Fullerton Coach George McQuarn used Wednesday night's pre-tournament banquet to thank those who talked him out of giving up coaching last month.
"This is where I belong," he said, "and I realize that now."
Afterward, McQuarn said: "I think the odds were against us winning six in a row, especially after so much had been made of it."
Mulligan was discouraged by the latest in a series of frustrating defeats by Irvine's cross-Orange County rival.
"I'd like to be cool, but this is one of the biggest disappointments in my life," he said.
Irvine played it close, pulling within 59-58 with 1:31 left on a bank shot by Joe Buchanan, but Henderson clinched it with a 17-foot jumper with 46 seconds remaining.
Said McQuarn: "When we had to have a bucket, the kids were smart enough to get the ball to him.
"Kevin did everything you expect a great player to do."
Johnny Rogers led Irvine with 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting. Tod Murphy, bothered all week by a virus, made 7 of 9 shots tnd finished with 15 points.
Irvine outscored Fullerton, 13-5, at the outset of the second half to take its first lead since early in the game. Rogers hit a 12-foot jumper to put the Anteaters in front, 41-40, with 14:41 left.
Over the next few minutes, Henderson displayed some of the skills that led many to believe he was the conference's most talented player before he suffered the foot injury that kept him out for seven weeks.
He hit a jumper in the lane that gave Fullerton a 42-41 lead. He backed in and shot over Irvine guard Scott Brooks to make it 44-41. He showed no signs of a limp with an authoritative drive to the basket to make it 46-43. And he pulled up for a three-pointer that gave the Titans a 51-47 lead with 8:55 to play.