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Irvine's Dream Dies in Final Seconds : College basketball: Brown's 33 points are not enough as Anteaters fall to New Mexico State, 70-64, in Big West final.

March 14, 1994|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — After a season fraught with near misses and overtime losses, perhaps it was appropriate that UC Irvine finished a few seconds and a few points shy of becoming the best story among NCAA Tournament teams with virtually no chance of winning a national championship.

The Anteaters' improbable run for the Big West Tournament title went to the wire Sunday, but ended in a 70-64 loss to regular-season champion New Mexico State in front of 4,052 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center.

"It was one of those special dreams that you have," Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. "It was a good story that continued to build each day, but tomorrow, it would have been a great story.

"We were striving for greatness and we were one day away from greatness. Nice is nice, but greatness is something else again. I mean, nice beats the hell out of going out with a whimper, but I wanted greatness."

The Anteaters (10-20) accomplished one thing they had failed to do during the regular season. They proved their long-held contention that they weren't really a last-place team. Not in their hearts, anyway.

For four days, they battled and, in the end, they went down swinging roundhouse haymakers.

Thanks in great part to 11 three-pointers by tournament co-Most Valuable Player Chris Brown, the score was tied, 62-62, with 2:40 remaining, and the Anteaters were only one of Brown's bombs away from a tie with as little as 37 seconds remaining.

"It was like a prize fight," Baker said. "We took punches, they took punches. We fell down, they fell down. And in the end, they were the ones left standing."

New Mexico State (23-7) hung on to the victory by doing something they have failed to do often while losing four of the last five games. The Aggies, who made just seven of 29 free throws in the second half of a regular-season-ending loss to San Jose State, made eight of 12 in the final 2:23.

"Irvine played with a lot of courage," Aggie Coach Neil McCarthy said. "It wasn't decided until the final minute when we finally made some free throws to wrap it up."

With 41 seconds to go, Brown's 20th three-point attempt went in and out of the basket and Irvine's quest was over. Lloyd Mumford, Irvine's senior point guard who had helped bring this team to the verge of the greatness, was forced to sit and watch the Aggies cut down the net. Mumford had 12 points and 10 assists in his final collegiate game.

"We were so close," Mumford said, "just a couple of seconds away, but we couldn't pull it off."

New Mexico State guard Skip McCoy, who made the all-tournament team along with Mumford, said he thought that playing four days in a row began to take it's toll on the Anteaters down the stretch.

"They gave everything they had, but I think they finally ran out of gas," McCoy said. "I just think we were a little fresher."

Still, the Aggies had to survive another last-ditch three-point attempt by Brown, who finished with 33 points. His final three of the season was an NBA-range, off-balance shot that bounded off the rim with less than 10 seconds left. It would have cut the New Mexico State lead to three.

"The way he was shooting, the odds were in his favor," said forward James Dockery, the co-MVP with Brown who led the Aggies with 19 points. "But he finally missed one."

Brown's early accuracy--he made his first three attempts in the first 4 1/2 minutes as Irvine jumped out to an 11-4 lead--forced the Aggies to abandon their beloved match-up zone and switch to a man-to-man defense. But their characteristic board-crashing dominance--they had 16 offensive rebounds--and defense on the rest of the Anteaters kept them in the game.

"I don't think Brown will beat you if you play good defense on everyone else and if you're scoring," said McCarthy, whose team is making its fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament after its fifth consecutive 23-victory season.

"I was concerned if we would be up for this game after getting such an emotional win (over Nevada Las Vegas) just 12 hours earlier. But we came out playing hard and I saw a re-emergence of that emotion in the last 10 minutes."

Baker, whose team came close to matching it's conference victory total (four) in one heady weekend in Las Vegas, was clearly disappointed but remained upbeat.

"We learned how to win in during this weekend and I'm not sure it's something we knew when we got here," he said.

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