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MIKE PENNER

UC Irvine Makes Up for Lost Season

March 14, 1994|MIKE PENNER

LAS VEGAS — No one sleeps in Insomnia City, not even Anteaters, who, after six years of brick-induced hibernation, tossed and turned for four days here and nearly woke up in the NCAA basketball tournament.

No one was really prepared for this, either, least of all UC Irvine.

The Anteater band pulled out of town after Thursday's first round of the Big West Tournament, never expecting the Anteater basketball team to be playing on three rounds later. For musical accompaniment Sunday, Irvine hired the band that plays at UNLV's women's basketball games--the Vegas 'B' band--and asked it nicely to hold up a ZOT! sign every so often.

The Anteater cheerleaders had scattered, as well, with four of them turning out for Sunday's championship final. That meant New Mexico State had Irvine out pom-ponned, 23 cheerleaders to four.

The Anteater rooting section, including one guy with a yellow "I" painted on his chest (U and C apparently stayed home), maxed out at around 200, up from the 30 who were on hand Thursday. "We always have 30," Irvine Athletic Director Dan Guerrero noted proudly. "From there, it grew exponentially."

So, against all odds and indicators, did the performance of Irvine's basketball team. Since its last appearance in the Big West final, 1988, Irvine had finished basketball seasons with records of 12-17, 5-23, 11-19 and, under Rod Baker, 7-22, 6-21 and 7-19 heading into this week.

Heading into this week, Irvine was the 10th-place team in the Big West, which, in the Big West, is the same thing as last place.

Yet, with 40 seconds to play in the Big West title game, Irvine and NCAA-tournament regular New Mexico State were separated by three points, just a jump shot away. And with Chris Brown, the most accurate trey-maker in the NCAA on the Anteaters' side, a three-point deficit is next to nothing, as easy to sweep aside as a flick of the wrist.

Brown, who'd already canned 11 three-pointers against the Aggies, got the ball, just as everyone inside Thomas & Mack Arena expected, but couldn't get off a shot. For once, an Aggie, Thomas Wyatt, was right in his face.

So Brown dumped the ball inside to center DeForrest Boyer for a bank shot that failed. New Mexico rebounded, Boyer fouled the rebounder and, two free throws later, the NCAA selection committee finally put away the Rolaids.

New Mexico State's 70-64 victory meant never having to say you're sorry for the proliferation of these postseason conference tournaments that have turned qualifying for the NCAA field into a virtual all-comers meet. With a couple different bounces of the ball, Tom Butters would be explaining today how an 11-19 last-place team belongs in his tournament and Dick Vitale would be dragging his fingernails across every Anteater joke in the book.

Not that the Anteaters much cared. Baker, so embattled through his first three seasons at Irvine, called his team's relentless climb through the Big West bracket "a good story, a nice story, a story that continued to build.

"Tomorrow, it would have been a great story."

Baker had promised big things when he first arrived at Irvine in mid-1991--bidding for the NCAAs being high on his list--but never detailed this kind of route. His team squeaked into this tournament only after conference officials voted to expand the field from eight teams to 10, then systematically knocked off the No. 7 seed, Santa Barbara, the No. 2 seed, Utah State, and the No. 6 seed, Pacific, on consecutive nights.

As they cleared out their half of the draw, the Anteaters cleared out the arena as well. By outlasting UNLV and Long Beach State, Irvine turned Thomas & Mack into Thomas . . . & Mack Wasn't Invited. Official attendance Sunday was listed at 4,052. That's less than 25% capacity, turning Irvine's moment in the sun into a very private viewing.

The Anteaters failed to notice, but then, they are used to life away from the masses in the Bren Center. So with a studio audience looking on, Brown put together a one-man highlight reel that ought to be copied and shown to every alumnus and potential season-ticket buyer Guerrero can round up in the next six months.

Brown attempted 22 field goals, 21 from beyond 19 feet 9 inches. He made 11 of them, accounting for 33 points--more than half Irvine's total offense--and leaving Aggie Coach Neil McCarthy wiping his brow between nervous glances at the scoreboard.

"Chris Brown was impossible," McCarthy said from behind the post-game dais. "My goodness, he can shoot. He's dangerous."

Brown, a junior, returns next season, as do starting forwards LaDay Smith and Mark Odsather and top reserves Jermaine Avie, Todd Whitehead, Shaun Battle and Zuri Williams.

"This program is going to get better and better," claimed Brown, who admitted he spent most of this season scratching his head.

"We'd beat New Mexico State at home, lose to Northridge, beat Iowa, lose to Fullerton. Too many times, we thought the games were already won before we played. We'd go to sleep.

"I think this tournament put a light in our eyes and showed us that if we play hard next year, we could be the ones cutting down the nets."

Baker couldn't have timed this run any better if he tried, although he insists, "I don't worry about my job." Guerrero, however, still plans to sit down with Baker in the next few weeks and discuss "the future of the program."

"I think we'll both go into that meeting with smiles on our faces," Guerrero said. "The way we played the last four days is the way we expected this team to play all season . . .

"This program has the potential to be successful. When I say successful, I don't mean going to the NCAAs five years in a row like New Mexico State. I want us to show improvement, knock on the NIT's door, get into the NIT or NCAAs every so often, be a solid contender year in and year out."

This week was a start. Not a great story, as Baker suggested, "but a nice story. And nice beats going out with a whimper by a whole bunch."

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