UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan would have you believe that it's just another game when the Anteaters play Cal State Fullerton.
So would George McQuarn, the Titans coach. Both claim to be of the opinion that any strong sense of rivalry is a figment the media's imagination.
Of course, these are the same men who waged a little battle of words over the whether McQuarn really did burn the videotape of Irvine's victory on the Titans' homecourt earlier this season, as he claimed to.
It's likely that McQuarn will save and savor the tapes of Thursday night's edition of Just Another Game. Henry Turner had a career-high 26 points and Derek Jones had a career-high 22 to lead Fullerton to a 92-81 victory in front of 11,338 in the first round of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Tournament in the Forum.
Fullerton (17-12) will meet top-ranked Nevada Las Vegas in the tournament semifinals tonight at 7. Irvine concluded its season at 14-14.
This marks the third straight season that Fullerton has knocked Irvine out of the tournament, and avenges the Titans' two regular-season defeats to the Anteaters. But maybe avenge is too strong a word.
"The media has made a rivalry out of this ballgame," McQuarn said. "I personally don't feel that way, and from what I've read in the papers, Mulligan doesn't feel that way, either."
Rivalry or not, there's no denying that the Titans--who at times seem to need a dire reason to play their best--were ready to play. They had 17 offensive rebounds to Irvine's four, which led to a 40-25 rebounding advantage. They shot 51% from the field and made 24 of 28 free throws, including 10 of 12 in the final 2 1/2 minutes, when the Anteaters were trying to three-point their way back into the game.
"It was our best effort in a long, long, long time," McQuarn said.
At the heart of it were two players who missed all or part of Irvine's 78-69 overtime victory over the Titans on Feb. 14 in Bren Center. Jones watched that game from the bench, his left arm in a sling, after suffering a dislocated shoulder two days before at Las Vegas. Turner left it in the arms of Fullerton trainers, after suffering a severely sprained right ankle with five minutes to play.
Both were given another chance to face Irvine through the luck of the PCAA draw. Together, they accounted for more than half of Fullerton's scoring, 18 rebounds and made 19 of 26 shots from the floor. It was too much for Irvine to overcome, despite 29 points from senior guard Scott Brooks and a late Anteater rally. UCI cut Fullerton's lead to 82-78 with 2:10 to play on Brooks' three-pointer, but the Titans held on with free throws. The 24 free throws represent the most Fullerton has made in a game this season.
"We tried to foul the right guys," Mulligan said. "They just made all their free throws. All the things we tried to do didn't work out.
"I don't know how you can beat a team twice during the year and then let this happen."
Brooks had a theory.
"It's tough to come back the way Fullerton played," he said. "In the previous games, they made a lot of mistakes that they didn't make tonight."
Brooks made 4 of 13 three-point shots and Joe Buchanan 3 of 6 to keep Irvine close and give McQuarn a scare. "That three-pointer scares us," he said. "I don't know how the hell to defend the darn thing."
The way Fullerton rebounded, particularly in the second half, it didn't matter. The Titans were getting two and three shots nearly every time down court and holding the Anteaters to one. Part of that, according to Jones, was a simple strength in numbers.
"We sent more men to the boards than they did because they had one guy--I think it was (Frank) Woods releasing on the shot," Jones said. "We outnumbered them, and we knew (Wayne) Engelstad couldn't outrebound us all night."
Engelstad finished with 11 rebounds but he didn't get much help. The lane belonged to Fullerton.
McQuarn said the Titans' aggressiveness was in no way attributed to any sense of rivalry with their neighbors to the south. "We just knew there was no tomorrow, and we played accordingly," he said.
But Brooks, a native of Lathrop and an outsider in terms of what Orange County basketball fans consider important, thinks there may be something to all this rivalry stuff.
"From what I sense and read in the newspapers, I think the rivalry is there," he said. "If that's the case, we won two of three this year. But not the one that counted."