IRVINE — The pass was still in the air, but Gerald McDonald was already grinning as he streaked downcourt, wide open for a breakaway dunk on the last play of UC Irvine's 80-75 victory over Utah State in front of 1,489 Saturday in the Bren Center.
It was merely the final, perfect play in the string of well-executed ones Irvine made down the stretch to win for the second time in three days. This, after losing 11 consecutive games and going more than a month without winning.
Irvine has lost its share of games because the Anteaters couldn't seem to make even one important play down the stretch. This time, they seemed to make them all.
Jeff Von Lutzow, a 78.6% free-throw shooter, made six of six free throws in the final 32 seconds, and Irvine didn't miss from the line in its final 15 attempts.
Irvine has lost almost as many leads as it has games, which is saying something for a team that is 5-16, 2-10 in the Big West Conference. The Anteaters led by 13 in the first half Saturday, only to find themselves down by eight in the second half as Utah State's quick-as-a-flash point guard, Malloy Nesmith, darted through and around the defense for driving layups. Nesmith finished with 18 points and nine assists.
But Irvine came back behind Von Lutzow, Elgin Rogers and Keith Stewart.
Stewart, who scored 15 points in his second game as a starter, gave Irvine the lead for good in the final minute when he drove the left side and pulled up for a four-foot bank shot, hanging to make it after he was bumped. His free throw gave Irvine a 72-70 lead with 50 seconds left.
Less than a minute earlier, Stewart had cut the lead to one with two free throws after being fouled on another drive through traffic.
"Good teams make the plays at the end," Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. "I don't think we're playing any differently except at the end we're making plays."
Von Lutzow, who scored 19 points as did McDonald, also grabbed two important defensive rebounds in the final minute, including Kendall Younglood's miss in traffic with 15 seconds left and Utah State trailing by three.
Youngblood scored 17 points but made only seven of 19 shots. Utah State (11-8, 5-5) was handicapped by foul trouble inside. Centers Carlito DaSilva, who averages 15 points and seven rebounds, and Nathan Wickizer, both fouled out--DaSilva with more than 15 minutes left.
The foul problems were one reason Irvine outscored Utah State at the line, 32-14. Irvine attempted 41 free throws to Utah State's 20.
Irvine led by as many as 13 points in the first half, with the big spurt coming when the Anteaters turned a five-point lead into 11 by scoring six points in 21 seconds on one trip down the court. Irvine was leading, 20-15, when Khari Johnson got an offensive rebound and powered up for a basket and was fouled. He missed the free throw, and Von Lutzow tipped the rebound out. Irvine got it, then lost it, then got it back, and Von Lutzow finished with a dunk. Then Craig Marshall stole the ball on Utah State's inbounds play, saving it as he fell out of bounds. McDonald got the ball underneath, was fouled and made both free throws for a 26-15 lead with 7:07 left in the half.
Irvine's 13-point lead dwindled some in the first half, partly because Baker rested Von Lutzow and McDonald, who each had two fouls.
The second half found Irvine behind.
"We're still sometimes stagnant offensively," Baker said. "We're still sometimes struggling to guard the dribble."
Nesmith was a case in point.
"He's smart and he's fast, and it's hard to guard a guy who's smart and fast," McDonald said. "You try to contain him, but they've got those great three-point shooters, so you try to stop the pass, too."
Irvine's offense has improved since Baker shook up the lineup. But the biggest difference might be McDonald. An extraordinarily poor shooter much of the season, he made five of seven shots Saturday after making seven of seven Thursday.
"Coach has more confidence in me, and I feel better shooting right now," McDonald said.
Von Lutzow, who sometimes is erratic, was steady as could be Saturday. Always an excellent free-throw shooter, he didn't falter.
"That's when I want to be on the line," he said. "For some reason, I don't feel intimidated. I enjoy it when the other team is saying, 'God, I hope he misses.' The second you start worrying--that's when you're gonna be short or miss the free throw."
He didn't miss, and with the victory, Irvine climbed out of last place in the Big West and a step closer to making the eight-team Big West tournament.
'Our team always had the ability to win, like we showed at the beginning of the year," Von Lutzow said. "Once you start losing, it becomes an epidemic, a disease. It's like getting the flu, and we had a hard time getting over it. We showed we can play ball. We're not gonna be a bunch of pushovers."