FRESNO — Don't tell UC Irvine's basketball team about how easy it is to win in Fresno State's Selland Arena this season. And please don't remind the Anteaters that the once-infamous Red Wave--the Bulldogs' vociferous, cardinal-clad fans--has been reduced to a quiet ripple recently.
Fresno State had yet to win a Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. game at home before Saturday night, but the Bulldogs and their faithful were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Irvine, a team that had lost 11 in a row in this facility.
Make it 12.
Irvine, leading by eight (56-48) with 8:55 remaining, wilted in the final minutes as the 10,159 in Selland roared in delight and Fresno State rallied for a 71-67 victory.
The Anteaters (9-7 overall and 4-3 in the PCAA) made just four points during an eight-minute stretch late in the half while the Bulldogs (5-11, 2-5) were scoring 13 points off Irvine turnovers in the second half.
"I've never gotten a win here," said Mike Hess, Irvine's senior guard. "The crowd is always somewhat of a factor here, but we just made some dumb mistakes down the line. Really, there's no reason for letting this one get away."
Well, maybe a few:
--Irvine, which entered the week as the third-best free-throw shooting team in the country, had another terrible night at the line, making just 14 of 21. The Anteaters made just 23 of 39 Thursday night against the University of the Pacific.
--The Anteaters, who led, 34-26, at halftime, made 13 second-half turnovers and gave up 10 second-half layups.
--Fresno State made 9 of 12 pressure free throws in the last five minutes.
--And, finally, from Irvine center Wayne Engelstad, who had a game-high 23 points: "They just wanted it more. . . . They played harder than we did."
Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan--who says he "doesn't buy any of that jinx (stuff)"--thought Fresno State's ability to get the ball inside and his own team's inability to make key free throws was the difference.
The Bulldogs outscored Irvine, 12-4, during a six-minute stretch late in the second half, and the crowd, relatively quiet for most of the game, smelled a victory.
Just like the good old days.
Junior forward Mike Mitchell, whose numbers--4 of 12 from the field, 4 of 9 from the line, 12 points and 6 rebounds--were not that impressive, deserves some credit for spiritual leadership. He revived his team, and aroused the crowd, with an all-out-go-for-broke second-half performance that included a pair of backboard-shaking dunks.
"Mike Mitchell played one hell of a game," Mulligan said. "I thought he played really, really hard."
The Bulldogs had shot less than 40% from the floor six times this season and better than 50% just twice. But they got a number of easy shots Saturday night and finished at 49% against Irvine.
"We got some easy baskets and we did a good job of getting the ball inside," Bulldog Coach Ron Adams said. "I think we gained some confidence when we got some baskets from the post and some baskets on penetrations."
Forward Derrick Barden had a game-high 10 rebounds and led Fresno State in scoring with 16 points, all of which came from close range. Guard Kevin Stevenson had 14 points, mostly on drives to the basket.
Irvine's first-half advantage had a lot to do with Hess' 3-for-3 shooting from three-point range. The Anteaters made 5 of 8 three-point attempts in the first half. But Adams mixed in a matchup zone and a little 3-2 zone with the man-to-man defense, and Irvine made just 2 of 7 three-pointers after halftime.
"They didn't play that much zone, but it bothered us," Mulligan said. "We didn't attack it too well."
Still, Irvine managed to match baskets with the Bulldogs through much of the first 10 minutes of the second half. The Anteaters led, 58-55, with 7:15 left when Frank Woods had his first free throw go almost halfway down the net and come back out. He missed the second as well.
Andre Sims then made Fresno State's only three-pointer of the game to tie the score. And Engelstad had a free throw go in and then come out on the front end of a one-and-one situation, and the crowd was reaching the frenzy level.
"Those free throws broke our backs," Mulligan said.
The Irvine defense, which had been more than respectable lately, didn't help, either.
"I think Irvine is playing some real good defense this year," Adams said, "and we didn't execute very well in the first half. But the difference was that we finally got it going, got in the flow and finally got the crowd invigorated, too."
To Mulligan and Co., it seemed just like the bad old days.