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Simmons Gives It His Best Shot

December 17, 1995|Mike Penner

With 13.1 seconds to play Saturday afternoon, UC Irvine had the ball under its own basket and its best chance in nine years at beating a Pac-10 team on the road.

OK, so the team was USC.

OK, so the road was 45 minutes up the 405 and 110 freeways.

Odometer readings and USC's 7-21 record in 1994-95 were a million miles away once the Anteaters inbounded the ball and whipped it around to their steadiest hand, sophomore forward Kevin Simmons, eight feet to the left of the hoop.

Kevin Simmons from eight feet. If Irvine Coach Rod Baker could get a guarantee that two out of every three Anteater games would be decided this way, he'd have signed on the bottom line months ago. Given the Italian-cut silk coat off his back, too.

"That's probably as good a shot," Baker said, "as we could possibly get."

"That's definitely the shot I wanted," Simmons said.

"I know I can do some things from that spot."

Option A is bank the ball off the glass or dribble once and pummel the hoop for the winning points.

Option B is dish the ball to a waiting teammate for an open jump shot.

Option C?

Simmons and Baker did not want to consider it, but, with Anteater luck still running neck-and-neck with spotting a black cat in the reflection of a broken mirror while walking under a ladder, Simmons took his shot.

And missed.

Then Simmons tried to rebound.

And fouled out.

USC's Stais Bozeman sank the subsequent free throws with 2.7 seconds remaining and Irvine's once-a-decade opportunity had kicked off the heel of the rim, the Trojans holding on for an 82-79 victory in front of 2,931 basketball connoisseurs who opted for the better half of Saturday's day-night doubleheader at the Sports Arena.

Still to come were the Clippers and the Hornets.

The pregame won-lost records for the Trojans and the Anteaters should have been chiseled in sterling and packed inside a time capsule, to be unearthed next century by an astonished scientific community:

USC (4-1) versus UC Irvine (3-1).

By virtue of Trojan victories over Penn, Houston and UNLV and an Anteater stunner over St. John's in New York.

These were a couple of surprising early-season stories crossing paths for the first time since 1991, and only the third time ever. Irvine beat USC in their initial meeting, in 1983, and three years later, the Anteaters also defeated UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the first round of the NIT.

Since then, Irvine was winless in Pac-10 gyms and arenas, including this month's shoddy 64-57 loss at Oregon State--a team that should figure prominently in this season's conference race, because without Oregon State, there'd only be a Pac-9.

The Anteaters handled this one considerably better. They outrebounded the Trojans (35-27) and took better care of the basketball and led at the half and were down by a point with 13.1 seconds to play and had a chance to win when Simmons went up with the ball with six seconds left.

That's why the outcome hung heavier over Anteater heads in the losing dressing room.

"We played hard, but we're supposed to play hard," Baker said. "There is no such thing as a good loss. The bottom line is, we wish we had won that game."

Simmons figured it was as good as done.

"I thought it was in," he said of his final shot. And when it wasn't? "I'm thinking, 'It ain't fallin'--but it's still a foul,' " he said.

No foul was called.

Simmons still figured he "was in a good rebound situation," so he went up again, collected the loose ball, went up again, and collected his fifth foul.

Afterward, the game's leading scorer (23 points) and rebounder (11) blamed himself for the defeat.

Not for what happened during those last 13.1 seconds, but during the hundreds of seconds that preceded it.

"This game, we could've won easily," Simmons said, "if I had some free throws. That comes back to me personally."

Simmons hit only half his foul shots, six of 12. Ordinarily, he's not a great foul shooter but good enough--74% before Saturday. However, the left calf muscle he bruised two weeks ago at Oregon State began acting up again in the second half, bothering Simmons every time he lowered into his squat before launching a free throw.

"Every time he would squat, it looked like a little alarm was going off in his calf," Baker said. "He can't get all the way down to where he should be on that shot. Probably, he was trying to overcompensate."

Simmons traced the problem back to a rebound early in the second half. "I jumped one time and came down the wrong way," he said. "After that, I wasn't bending my knees like I usually do on free throws. I kept coming up short."

From 15 feet.

From eight feet too.

"This would have been a big win for us," Simmons said sadly. "Beating the Pac-10, USC, a pretty good team in that conference. It would have given a boost going into our conference."

Irvine had the chance it wanted. It had the right shot, it had the right shooter.

What more could it ask for?

Given another 13.1 seconds, Simmons probably could think of something.

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