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Simmons' Return Energizes Irvine

Basketball: Recovered from the flu, he picks up his teammates in 74-68 victory over Nevada. Keefe scores 26 points.

February 25, 1996|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Kevin Simmons slipped underneath for a reverse layup. He hit a three-pointer from the baseline. He scored on a leaning seven-footer. And he banked in a short jumper, was fouled and made the free throw.

Eight minutes into Saturday night's game against Nevada, Simmons and his teammates knew he had finally recovered from the flu symptoms that had been dragging down his game for two weeks.

And it was just the lift UC Irvine needed.

The Anteaters snapped a two-game losing streak, clung to their percentage-points lead in the Big West Conference over Long Beach State and celebrated Simmons' return to form with a 74-68 victory over the Wolf Pack in front of 4,087 in the Bren Center.

"He just gets me excited," said Brian Keefe, who scored 26 points to lead the team in scoring for the sixth consecutive game. "I just feed off Kev's energy. When he started off like that, it really picked us all up."

Simmons, who had averaged fewer than seven points in the last four games and had an 0-for-12-from-the-floor nightmare a week ago at New Mexico State, ran out of gas late in the game and played only 14 minutes in the second half. But he finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and only one turnover.

"I felt really good before the game and I feel even better now that we won," Simmons said. "I still have a cough and I got tired at the end, but I'm sure the worst is over. That was the first time I've ever been sick like that."

Simmons' resurgence seemed to energize the Anteaters (14-9 and 10-5 in conference). They made 21 of 23 free throws, including 11 of 12 in the final two minutes 10 seconds. They held their own on the boards and did a decent job of containing Nevada center Daniel Watts without the help of their best defensive post player, Shaun Battle, who is sidelined because of wrist injuries. Watts led the Wolf Pack (16-9, 9-7) with 15 points and nine rebounds.

And the Anteaters answered all challenges. When Simmons scored with 11:55 left in the first half, Irvine led by 13. Nevada closed to within four with two minutes left in the half, but the Anteaters scored five points in the final 57 seconds to increase their margin to 10 at the intermission.

The Wolf Pack rallied and trimmed Irvine's lead to two (48-46) midway through the second half, but the Anteaters outscored Nevada, 15-7, over the next 6 1/2 minutes to rebuild their 10-point lead.

Senior Raimonds Miglinieks, the nation's assist leader, had eight assists and 18 points. With Miglinieks, however, it's more when he scores than how much. Consider:

* When the Wolf Pack closed the gap to four points late in the first half and had Irvine stymied as the 35-second clock ticked down to two, he drilled a 25-footer.

* When they got to within two points in the second half, he swished home another three-pointer.

* When they had pulled to within seven with 3:26 remaining, he hit a third three.

* And in the final two minutes, he stepped to the free-throw line and turned two one-plus-one situations into four points.

"At the end of so many important possessions, who's going to have the ball in his hands?" Coach Rod Baker asked. "Raimonds is going to have it and we're going to live and die with what he does.

"And I'm perfectly happy to do that."

The Anteaters are starting to dream about a first-ever conference championship and Saturday night's game was a giant step toward that goal.

"This game, and our win against Long Beach, were the two most important games of the season," Miglinieks said. "Nevada has seven or eight good players. They're a good team."

The victory ensured Irvine of its first winning record in eight seasons and its most conference victories in a decade. According to Keefe, however, it also was something more intangible.

"This was a huge win for us," he said, "because tonight we proved we belong in first place."

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