It was senior night at UC Irvine's Bren Center Saturday, that annual salute to the young men playing for the last time on their home court. Irvine's three seniors--Wayne Engelstad, Mike Hess and Frank Woods--were honored in a postgame ceremony at center court with their family and friends.
Engelstad's mother cried. Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan cried. For the former, they were tears of joy. For the latter, it was more like relief.
The Anteaters (14-10 overall and 9-6 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.) turned in a less-than-inspired performance but held on to beat University of the Pacific, 85-81, in front of 3,153. The Tigers (5-19, 0-14) have lost 17 in a row and 16 straight to Irvine.
"The PCAA has a rule that you can hold the (senior) ceremony 20 minutes before the game or after the game," Mulligan said. "Some of our people thought we could chalk this one up as a win and decided to hold it afterwards.
"I wasn't one of them. This game scared me to death."
Ironically, it wasn't Engelstad, the conference's No. 2 scorer with a 24-point-per-game average, who was the hero. It was Hess, the 6-foot 1-inch overachiever, who saved the evening.
Hess had a career-high 18 points, hitting 5 of 8 from the floor, including 3 of 6 three-pointers. But, as is usually the case with Hess, it was the little things that don't show up in the box score that made the difference.
He guarded Pacific's top scorer, 6-5 Domingo Rosario, and held him to 12 points. With 7:31 to play, Hess hit a three-pointer to put Irvine ahead, 70-68. Then he tipped the ball out of Rosario's hands and off the Tiger guard out of bounds. On Pacific's next possession, he drew a charging call on Jon Barry and made the first free throw of a one-and-one situation.
A minute later, he stole a pass and went the distance for a layup. He came up with an errant lob on the Tigers' next possession and fed Engelstad, who scored on a layup, was fouled and made the free throw to put Irvine ahead, 80-74, with 3:25 to play.
"My jumper finally started going in," Hess said. "If we can do that more often, there's no way anyone can stop Wayne."
Engelstad, who "didn't have a good night offensively," according to Mulligan, finished with 19 points, making 8 of 15 field goal attempts and just 3 of 7 free throws. Woods made 4 of 5 from the floor, 5 of 6 from the line and finished with 13 points and 6 rebounds.
"He gave me the wrong answer to a question at halftime," Mulligan said. The coach wouldn't elaborate. The senior would.
"He asked me what I thought was a dumb question," Engelstad said. "He asked me if I have any pride. After four years, I think he already knows the answer to that."
Pride was not the problem. Defensive intensity was the missing factor for the Anteaters on this evening.
"We had a total defensive breakdown and got away with it," Mulligan said. "They just drove to the basket all night. Look, I'm happy for the three kids and I'll take the win, but this was not a very impressive performance."
Forward Christian Gray, the PCAA's version of Adrian Dantley, scored 27 points and had 10 rebounds for the Tigers.
Mulligan: "Gray posts up better than any 6-3 player I've ever seen. We had four different guys guarding him and no one could stop him."
That's pretty much the way Gray saw it. He made a pair of free throws with 44 seconds left to lift the Tigers to within one (81-80) only to see his team fail to get over the hump again.