RENO, Nev. — No fish story here: UC Irvine, swimming upstream in the Big West Conference all winter, watched two 17-point first-half leads melt to three in the waning minutes before actually hooking an 82-79 victory over the University of Nevada Thursday night.
Keith Walker made two free throws with 1:07 to play to thwart Nevada's most serious comeback effort and increase Irvine's lead to 76-71. The Anteaters (4-12, 2-7) were able to reel it in from there and finally move out of last place in the Big West in front of 3,769 in the Lawlor Events Center.
"We know three points can vanish like that," said Irvine guard Keith Stewart, who finished with 13 points. "We had to not get rattled. Try to go up by five instead of win by three."
Or, as forward Jeff Von Lutzow figured it: "You know, like when you catch that fifth fish, you kind of want to catch that sixth one?
"Just remember. We caught that sixth fish tonight. The big one finally didn't get away."
Unfortunately for the Anteaters, though, their big one did get away. Center Dee Boyer was ejected from the game, along with Nevada center Ric Herrin, for fighting with 19:25 left in the second half. As a result, according to NCAA rules, both players will probably have to sit out their games on Saturday. Irvine is at Utah State; Nevada hosts Cal State Fullerton.
The "fight" occurred when Boyer and Herrin got tangled up going for a rebound under Irvine's basket. Boyer came over the top, hooked Herrin's arm and, as the Herrin gained possession of the ball, Boyer took a swing at the Nevada center. Although it went no further, the officials quickly ejected both players. No fouls were called.
"I was a little frustrated and just lost my head," Boyer said. "It was no big thing. I lost my cool and he was protecting himself."
Said Irvine Coach Rod Baker: "Both guys ended up being wrong. I just said, 'Dee, whatever it was that caused it was probably the least aggressive thing Herrin did all night.' "
Baker was unhappy with what he thought was a quick whistle.
"I thought it was awfully quick," he said. "Bill Kennedy is a good referee; I'm not going to bitch and moan about it. I will probably bitch and moan about it on Saturday night (when Boyer will likely be forced to sit out)."
That is still a day away, though. First, a moment for an occasion that seemingly comes along about as often as an eclipse:
Irvine had lost 12 consecutive conference games on the road and 17 of 18. It was Baker's first conference victory on the road.
Road victories are historic occasions around Irvine. It was also only the Anteaters' second victory in Nevada. Now 2-14 in the state, Irvine had not won since a 99-92 victory at Nevada Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 1986. On that day, Irvine became the first Big West team to win in UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center.
These days, though, Baker is resorting to every tactic that comes to mind. Last week he had his team take a swim together; Thursday he gave freshman Shaun Battle his first start of the season, moving forward Khari Johnson to the bench.
Johnson, though, played 30 minutes to Battle's 13. Battle finished with six points.
And the Anteaters, behind Von Lutzow's 24 points, Johnson's 16 and Lloyd Mumford's 15, moved past Nevada (7-10, 2-8) into ninth in the Big West.
Eric Morris had 25 points and 12 rebounds for Nevada.
Irvine led at halftime, 49-38, thanks to shooting a blistering 64% from the floor. Nevada tried a box-and-one on Stewart, a zone, straight man, and Irvine scoffed at all of it.
Von Lutzow--who missed the first game with Nevada this season because of a toe injury--had two three-pointers and Stewart one in the first five minutes, and each finished the half three of four from three-point range.
Irvine, which sank seven of 10 three-pointers for the half, was 10 of 18 for the game. The Anteaters shot 57.8% for the game--better than their 57.1% from the free throw line.
While Baker was unhappy that some of his better shooters were guilty of contributing to the poor free throw percentage, he also fretted because of the fight. He knows people will remember Irvine's ugly fight with Fullerton on Jan. 16.
"Now everybody is going to say, 'There's another fight,' " Baker said. "I wish everyone would go back and say they've seen a fight and that (the Boyer-Herrin scuffle) wasn't a fight."
The subject in the Nevada interview room, though, was Irvine's reputation for fighting.
"You can't take Irvine into effect and say that every game, they're going to fight," Herrin said in response to a question from a Nevada reporter.
Herrin, Nevada's second-leading scorer, had 10 points and five rebounds at the time. Boyer had just two points and two rebounds.
But Irvine won for the second time in three games.
"After awhile, losing keeps rolling on and on," Von Lutzow said. "It's like a cold--if you don't cure it, it's never going to go away."
Forward Elzie Love, who has tendinitis in both knees, did not make the trip . . . Neither did LaDay Smith, who remains sidelined with a stress fracture.