Sometimes, seeing is not necessarily believing. Tuesday night in Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse was a case in point.
UC Irvine, a team that relies heavily on accurate shooting, made just 33% of its field-goal attempts. The Anteaters played the last 15 minutes without starting point guard Mike Labat, who re-sprained his left ankle. They played the last 6 1/2 minutes without their senior center and top scorer, Wayne Engelstad, who fouled out.
And somehow, there they were with the ball in the final seconds and a chance to win. It was Tom Lewis--the offensive superstar from Mater Dei who said he was going to Irvine in the summer of '86 but later opted for Pepperdine--who blocked Frank Woods' driving layup attempt, and the Waves hung on for a 91-89 victory.
"We shot terrible, we played terrible and we lost by two," UCI Coach Bill Mulligan said. "We didn't lose that game in the last six seconds, though. We lost it in the first half when we missed wide-open shots and made turnovers to phantom defenders."
According to the box score, Irvine outrebounded Pepperdine, 52-44, but it seemed as if the Waves totally controlled the boards. Levy Middlebrooks, a 6-foot 7-inch mass of muscle who looks more like a professional wrestler than a college basketball player, made 12 of 15 shots from the floor, grabbed 12 rebounds and led the Waves' scoring with 28.
Lewis slithered around underneath, drawing his usual array of fouls and scored 23. But it was guard Craig Davis, who hit 10 of 17 field-goal attempts and 3 of 5 three-pointers, who made the difference down the stretch.
After Irvine's Kevin Floyd hit a three-pointer to tie the game, 89-89, with 27 seconds remaining, Davis slipped behind a teammate's screen and nailed a 17-footer to give the Waves the margin of victory.
"It was a designed play," Davis said. "I had the option of shooting or passing, so I shot it. That's my favorite play."
Jim Harrick, who was jumping up and down after Davis' jumper and Lewis' block, wasn't exactly overjoyed with his team's performance. The way Harrick saw it, the Waves (2-0) were not the same team that beat DePaul in overtime Saturday.
"I was disappointed in our emotion," he said. "We were still playing Saturday night's game. We had plenty of chances to put it away, but we relaxed and got outhustled."
Every time Pepperdine appeared on the verge of blowing it open, Irvine (2-1) managed to wriggle back into the game. Middlebrooks' layup with 7:43 left in the first half gave the Waves a 27-18 lead, but two minutes later, UCI trailed by just one, 29-28.
The Waves rolled to a 52-40 advantage in the first four minutes of the second half, but the Anteaters chipped away and got back in the game with 2:12 remaining after Woods made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to four (82-78).
The Anteaters tied the game on three-pointers from guard Mike Hess and Floyd, who was playing in his first game after being suspended for the Freedom Bowl tournament after a fight in practice. But the Anteaters' love affair with the 19-foot 9-inch stripe turned sour for the major portion of this evening. UCI made just 9 of 23 three-point attempts and only 2 of 11 in the first half.
Engelstad, Floyd and Hess each had 15 points to lead the Anteaters. As usual, Mulligan wasn't exactly ready to heap praise on Engelstad after the game.
"He fell into his big-game mode," Mulligan said of Engelstad. "He's never gonna be in a big game when the game's on the line because he fouls out of them all."
Engelstad, who is used to the abuse after four years with Mulligan, shrugged and said, "I'm not going to change my style of play. I'll try to avoid the dumb fouls, but these weren't dumb fouls tonight."
Engelstad was a bit outmanned underneath, but the Anteaters aren't supposed to out-bang people, they're supposed to out-shoot them.
This time, the UCI starters shot a combined 15 of 50 from the field.
"That's as soft a defense as we've played," Mulligan said. "And we shoot 33% . . . maybe it was too easy. How we can play that bad and still be in the game, I don't know."