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MIKE PENNER

Finally, Irvine's Bill Mulligan Has a Chance to Smile

February 19, 1990|MIKE PENNER

Bill Mulligan's first sensation was a loss of sensation.

"Numbness," he called it.

After two months of agony, it seemed a pleasant way to pass a few seconds until the mood was shattered by assistant coach Mike Bokosky's bear hug.

Nudged back to reality, Mulligan glanced again at the scoreboard. The final totals--UC Irvine 98, UC Santa Barbara 97--hadn't changed. There would be no recount. Irvine guard Rod Palmer could keep dancing. And here came Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm down the court, hand extended in congratulations.

Saturday night, for the first time this decade, for the first time since Dec. 16, 1989, Mulligan's Anteaters won a game.

"It was like someone told you that you had cancer," the coach said, "and then a little while later, someone else comes by and says they made a mistake."

Fifteen going on infinity, Irvine's streak of winless basketball games had a certain terminal feel to it. Was it ever going to end? Would anyone get out alive? After the missed opportunities against Fresno State and the University of the Pacific, hope for the season was in short supply.

Irvine never wins at Santa Barbara. "The toughest place to play in the conference," Mulligan says. And what had the Anteaters done lately? Their 102-63 loss to Cal State Long Beach two nights earlier was the school's worst since 1975, when Irvine lost to Nevada Las Vegas by 72 points--back when the Anteaters played Division II basketball.

Mulligan refers to the Long Beach game as "that debacle." He also says, "That's as sad as we've been all year," which is saying something.

But the seeds of an upset can be sown in unlikely places and Irvine's despair against Long Beach may have worked to its favor against a 17-7 Santa Barbara squad.

"Teams have trouble playing us now," Mulligan said. "They know how bad we've been going and they don't want to be the ones to break the streak."

So instead of playing to win, the object for Irvine opponents becomes playing not to lose, playing not to be embarrassed.

Dylan Rigdon, Irvine's freshman guard, took the Long Beach defeat a different way. He took it personally--and he took it home with him.

Figuring a replay might leave his young players scarred for life, Mulligan refused to show his team the film of the Long Beach game. Morbid curiosity, however, got the best of Rigdon, who talked Mulligan into slipping him a copy of the tape for a private screening.

And a private screaming.

"Oh geez," Rigdon said. "I had to apologize to Coach Mulligan for my performance. I looked at the tape and couldn't believe how pathetic we were."

Rigdon returned inspired and, against Santa Barbara, played the game of his brief career--hitting six of eight three-point baskets for 24 points.

"Rigdon has no fear," says Mulligan, who had feared the worst once he took note of the extenuating circumstances surrounding Rigdon Saturday night.

"You know, his girlfriend is John Wayne's granddaughter," Mulligan said. "And she goes to UC Santa Barbara. With her and her folks in the stands, I thought he'd press. I thought he'd throw up . . . with all that pressure."

Instead, Rigdon displayed nothing but true grit. In the second half, with the Gauchos mounting a comeback, Rigdon launched five shots from three-point range and buried each of them, keeping Santa Barbara at arm's length.

Saturday also marked the return of Ricky Butler, who ended his exile on Mulligan's bench long enough to sink eight of 10 field goals for 22 points--including the tying and winning free throws with 20 seconds left.

Mulligan describes those waning moments as "probably the longest 20 seconds of my life. First, Butler makes two free throws when you didn't think it could happen. (Butler is shooting 59% from the foul line this season.) Then, they come down and get off three shots.

"For 20 seconds, I've never been in a place so loud in my life."

While the Santa Barbara fans brought the noise, the Santa Barbara players brought the bricks. Eric McArthur, Adris Jones and Gary Gray all took their shots. Only McArthur's touched the rim.

The clock struck zero and, with it, the longest losing streak in UC Irvine history did the same.

The Anteaters had improved to 1-13 in the Big West Conference and 3-20 for the season.

Excuse Mulligan if he got a little giddy.

"At one point in the game," he said, "I'm looking down the floor and we've got four freshmen and a sophomore playing. I'm thinking, 'Maybe we can turn this around.' "

But he had to go and spoil the moment by remembering the remainder of Irvine's schedule.

"We get Vegas next, then Fullerton, then we go to San Jose and Utah State," Mulligan said, almost groaning. "So maybe it's just one game. We're making strides. I don't think we're a very good team yet, but we're making strides."

Mulligan says this as he studies his television screen, grimacing through Las Vegas' 95-87 victory over Arizona Sunday.

"I just hope we don't get embarrassed," Mulligan says. "Now that we beat Santa Barbara, you know Jerry (Tarkanian) is going to get his players up for us. Look at them--they're just dismantling Arizona. When Jerry gets them ready to play, they're capable of embarrassing people."

It never ends, does it?

"Yes, it does," Mulligan says with a laugh. "Two weeks from Wednesday. And it's going to be the happiest day of my life."

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