SAN JOSE — Earlier this season, UC Irvine's basketball team was into playing the perfect guest. The Anteaters were always entertaining, running up triple-digit scores and then graciously losing, leaving their hosts and their fans smiling.
But Irvine has done a 180-degree turn in the last couple of weeks and Monday night's 63-55 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. victory over San Jose State was a case in point.
Charitably, the game could be described as a defensive battle, but when you get right down to it, this one gave new meaning to the phrase "winning ugly."
"So we're playing vomit basketball," Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said. "I may not like it as much, the players may not like it as much, but we're more into winning than having fun."
The Anteaters (12-10 overall and 7-6 in the PCAA) used the clock, tried to work the ball inside without much success and, in the final analysis, got a huge assist from the Spartans (10-12, 5-8), who made 8 of 24 free throws. Irvine was 25 of 34 from the line.
It was, by any account, a bizarre game. Irvine hasn't scored as few points since a loss to Cal State Fullerton in the 1986 PCAA Tournament. San Jose's Ricky Berry, the conference's leading scorer with a 25-point-per-game average, tied his lowest output of the season with 16. Irvine's Wayne Engelstad, second in the PCAA in scoring with an average of 24, tied his season low with 10.
"We changed our style because we felt that other teams were getting too many spurts," Mulligan said. "We were taking too many quick jumpers, missing them and teams were putting together 8- and 10-point runs.
"It was a very encouraging win because Wayne didn't play that much because of foul trouble and he didn't have a very good game. And it was one of our better efforts defensively."
The Anteaters' pressure man-to-man defense forced San Jose into 12 first-half turnovers and the Spartans' matchup zone kept Irvine from getting the ball into Engelstad, who had just two field goal attempts in the first half.
The Anteaters, however, had a 30-21 advantage at halftime.
San Jose steadily cut the lead early in the second half, though, and finally tied the score, 48-48, on a three-pointer by Steve Haney with 6:31 remaining. But Kevin Floyd, who led all scorers with 17 points, hit an 18-foot jumper on Irvine's next possession and the Anteaters led the rest of the way.
Irvine made 10 of 12 free throws in the final four minutes to seal the victory.
"I think we're in a slump," said Spartan Coach Bill Berry, whose team has five straight losses. "It's an emotional thing, not a physical thing and I certainly don't have any easy answers.
"We had an outstanding game on the boards (the Spartans outrebounded Irvine, 41-28), we did a good job on Wayne most of the game, but if it's not one thing, it's another."
Spartan forward Dietrich Waters, with 18 rebounds, and Berry, with 15, both established career highs. Waters had 10 offensive rebounds.
Waters, however, was 1 for 8 at the free-throw line and Berry was only 3 for 7.
"If we hit a decent free-throw percentage, we could possibly have won this game," Bill Berry said. "I don't know . . . we're just stale as heck. We just don't seem to have much energy."
The once-hyper Anteaters are playing at a lethargic pace these days, but a win justifies the means.
"The last time we were up here, we got beat pretty bad (95-70)," Floyd said. "The San Jose players were laughing at the end of the game and then we were sitting outside the locker room watching them sign autographs for kids. It was a sick feeling. We just wanted a win here . . . bad."
And an important victory it was. The main objective of all the middle of the pack PCAA teams is to finish sixth or higher, avoiding the first night of play in the tournament when the No. 7 team plays No. 10 and No. 8 plays No. 9 while the top six have a bye.
Irvine is now alone in fifth place. New Mexico State is in sixth at 6-7. Fresno State is seventh at 5-7 and San Jose drops to eighth at 5-8.
"An ugly win beats a pretty loss every time," Engelstad said. "We needed this as a confidence builder. We've got two games at home now (against Fresno State and last-place University of the Pacific) and we'd feel pretty good if we could go out on that final three-game road trip with three straight wins."
Even ugly ones.