Bill Mulligan, UC Irvine coach, was entertaining a few media types Thursday night in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. It was a post-game press conference that turned into a Mulligan monologue, and Mulligan was on a roll.
Irvine had just ignored the banners and the stigma of Pauley Pavilion to defeat UCLA, 80-74, in what Mulligan called the biggest victory in the six seasons he has been the Anteaters' coach. One-liners, he said, were easy to come by.
"Hey, you can be funny when you win," Mulligan said. "Last Thursday, I was trying to find a bar to hide in."
That's because last Thursday, Mulligan had every reason to believe that UCI's season was over. The Anteaters lost to Cal State Fullerton, 66-58, in the first round of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Tournament. The loss left UCI with a 16-12 record, not the kind of numbers that usually attract the directors of post-season tournaments.
But two wins over nationally ranked Nevada Las Vegas were enough for NIT officials to give the Anteaters another chance.
And, after Thursday night, the two games that were once looked upon as the most cherished in Mulligan's UCI career are on their way to becoming a pleasant memory that led to the new "biggest win."
"I think the two wins over Vegas were great, but this is even bigger," Mulligan said. "This is the biggest win since I've been at Irvine. I'm just thrilled."
Said Mike Bokosky, UCI assistant coach: "We've got to live in L.A. We don't live in Vegas."
The win sends UCI (17-12) into a second-round game Tuesday night against Brigham Young in Provo, Utah. What may be more important is the impact it has on the future of UCI basketball, and the unheard of support the Anteaters got from their fans, who, with a couple exceptions, have been rather sedate at home games and downright difficult to pick out on the road.
The closest thing UCI has ever had to a Yellow Wave occupied several sections of Pauley Pavilion. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 Irvine fans among the 7,089 in attendance. Crawford Hall, the Anteaters' home court, only holds 1,496.
"I have never seen that since I've been at Irvine," Mulligan said. "Never."
Irvine guard Joe Buchanan said he was stunned to see long lines at the ticket window in Crawford Hall this week.
"That was nice to see," he said. "Winning does that."
It does that and more when the victory is against a team with the storied success of UCLA.
Said Tod Murphy: "It's not only beating the UCLA team. It's beating everything they stand for . . . all the things they've accomplished."
This was UC Irvine's night. Unexpectedly, the Anteaters were given a second chance. And it came against a team with tradition quite clearly on its side.
Said Johnny Rogers, who scored 29 points: "We were lucky to get into this tournament, I'll admit that. But at least we won tonight."