IRVINE — UC Irvine, a work in progress on the basketball court, experienced a small step forward Saturday.
The Anteaters repeated many of the same mistakes that have plagued them this season in a 69-59 loss to Nevada Las Vegas. But the things they did right were nearly enough for a victory.
The Rebels (4-0) needed an 18-3 run in the second half to erase a 48-40 Irvine lead in front of 2,098 at the Bren Center. UNLV made six of eight free throws in the final minute to hold on.
In most cases, such a loss would be devastating. For the Anteaters, it was progress and helped distance them from a disastrous road trip. Irvine (0-4) was blown out by Washington State and Eastern Washington earlier in the week.
"We were a little lackadaisical in Washington,' said guard Juma Jackson, who scored 14 points. "I know I felt I didn't come to play in those games. We learned we have to come to play every night, not just once in a blue moon."
UNLV was the perfect opponent for such retrenching. Th Rebels are without center Keon Clark (knee injury) and guard Donovan Stewart (back injury). They started strong Saturday, taking a 22-12 lead, but then collapsed.
The Rebels seemed unable to crack the Anteaters' 1-2-2 zone. Las Vegas shot 36% and made only seven of 26 three-pointers. The Rebels led, 26-24, at halftime and then were outscored, 13-3, to start the second half.
"We felt they couldn't shoot well, so we pressed them with our zone," Jackson said.
The defense also helped the Anteaters hide walk-on Anthony Delacruz, who was starting for the injured Brian Johnson (sprained toe). Delacruz, a 6-foot-4 freshman, played 39 minutes.
Johnson, who is out at least a week, averaged nine points through three games. Paul Foster filled that void with a season-high 17 points. Foster, who has been slow to take on more scoring duties this season, had back-to-back baskets to hold off one Rebel rally midway through the second half.
Foster made seven of 10 shots and had nine rebounds.
"We shoved the ball down his throat and said, 'Here, shoot it,' " Coach Rod Baker said.
The Anteaters offense ran much smoother with Foster taking a bigger role.
"We're getting older," Baker said. "We now have four games under our belts. I thought we showed patience on offense 75% of the time."
Still, it was far from perfect. Irvine turned the ball over 27 times and made only 13 of 29 free throws.
The Anteaters missed three one-and-one attempts, all when they had the lead, and two three-point play opportunities in the second half.
It was costly. Irvine led, 48-40, with 9 minutes 20 seconds left, then wilted. The Anteaters were hurt when Delacruz was called for an intentional foul with 3:25 left and Las Vegas leading, 55-51. The Rebels scored three points, all on free throws, on the two possessions.
Jermaine Smith, who finished with 29 points, scored seven points in the final four minutes to put Las Vegas over the top.
"We were better tonight, but we still played sloppy," guard Lamarr Parker said. "But each week, we are going to get better."