This was supposed to be the season Cal State Fullerton guard Kevin Henderson would emerge as one of the West's premier players, a four-month stopover on the way to an NBA career.
It has been one of waiting, of sitting on the bench biding time until the broken foot he suffered on Dec. 22, 1985 healed and enabled him to return to the court.
UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan had long feared that Henderson's return would come about the time of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Tournament, and that his Anteaters would have to the misfortune of watching Henderson return to form.
That fear was realized Thursday night as Henderson scored 24 points to lead Fullerton to a 66-58 win over Irvine in the tournament's first round in front of 9,613 in the Forum.
Henderson was 9 of 11 from the field in leading the Titans to their sixth straight win over UCI and 10th in the last 12 meetings.
Fullerton (16-15) will meet top-seeded Nevada Las Vegas in a semifinal game at 7 tonight. UCI (16-12) is out of the tournament.
Fullerton Coach George McQuarn used Wednesday night's pre-tournament banquet to thank those who talked him out of leaving coaching last month.
"This is where I belong," he said, "and I realize that now."
Afterward, McQuarn said he was proud that his team was able to put an old adage to rest. There was no psychological advantage for Irvine in losing both of its regular season games to the Titans.
"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 to UCI's cross-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 to within 59-58 with 1:31 to play 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 UCI with 17 points on 7 of 15 shooting. Tod Murphy, bothered all week by a virus, was 7 of 9 from the floor and finished with 15 points.
UCI 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 to play.
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 UCI guard Scott Brooks to make it 44-41. He showed no signs of a limp with an aggressive 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.
This tournament has not been kind to the Anteaters. UCI entered Thursday night's game with a 2-7 record in the PCAA Tournament, and guess who two of those losses came to?
Mulligan still has vivid memories of 1982, when Irvine came into the the tournament with a 21-5 record and an All-American center named Kevin Magee. UCI beat Utah State, 90-64, in the first round to set up a semifinal meeting against Fullerton. Irvine was clinging to a 61-60 lead in the final seconds, and making sure Titan guard Leon Wood wouldn't get an opportunity to win the game. That left Gary Davis open for the jump shot that gave the Titans a 62-61 win.
"I think he was something like 3 for 11 at that point," Mulligan said.
The Titans won both meetings in 1982-83. Irvine got a measure of revenge by winning the two 1983-84 games . . . by a total of four points. The second, a 72-69 win in Crawford Hall, was the last time Irvine has beaten the Titans.
Mulligan admitted that he's grown tired of being asked about the mysterious hold the Titans have developed over their cross-county rivals in recent years.
"It wouldn't bother me so much if they asked me 'How come you're 12-0 against UOP?' or, 'Why are you 11-3 against Utah State.' Nobody ever asks me that.
"I guess it's something we'll have to live with because we're so close to them."
Part of Mulligan's frustration may be that he has no explanation for the way these teams have played against each other this season. How do you explain the fact that UCI led the conference in field goal percentage (.502), but shot 40.4% (40 of 99) in the two regular season games against Fullerton? And how do you figure Fullerton shooting 45.4% in PCAA play, but 58.4% against the Anteaters?
Looking at how the teams fared against other PCAA teams only adds to the mystery. Fullerton lost twice to Utah State, the University of the Pacific and Nevada Las Vegas. UCI swept all three teams.
McQuarn has said that the way his team plays against UCI can be attributed to emotion. The Titans, he theorizes, play with more intensity against the Anteaters than they do most teams.
That was certainly the case in the first half. After Irvine got out to a 13-7 lead, Fullerton began building momentum. The Titans closed the gap to 14-13 on Henderson's jumper in the lane, then took their first lead with 8:53 left in the first half on two free throws by Vincent Blow.
The Titans outscored UCI, 15-8, over the next five minutes and left the floor at halftime with a 35-28 lead.
Fullerton basically picked up where it left off in a 78-68 win over the Anteaters in last Saturday's regular season finale in Crawford Hall. The Titans issued familiar messages in the form of three blocked shots. Henderson and Morton combined to make 8 of 10 shots from the field and score 21 points. UCI again struggled to find its shooting touch, making 12 of 26 field goal attempts (46.2%).
"I'm just tired of making excuses," Mulligan said. "We didn't play well, I didn't coach well, and I feel terrible.