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UC Irvine 'Celebrates' Clinching Tie for Title

February 25, 2001|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crowd of 3,763 in the Bren Center roared, but there was no celebration on the UC Irvine bench when the announcement came over the public-address system Saturday night as the Anteaters were putting the finishing touches on their 74-66 nonconference victory over UC Riverside.

Boise State had rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit to upset Utah State in overtime, assuring the Anteaters of at least a tie for the Big West Conference title. Irvine (22-3, 13-1) has a two-game lead on the Aggies (22-5, 11-3) with two games left.

But at a historic time in school history, when you'd think Irvine players would be whooping it up, not much more than a few deadpan cliches came out of the Anteaters. This supposedly monumental moment passed without much of a holler.

"It's been our goal to win a championship," Coach Pat Douglass said.

You hardly would have known it.

"There's still two games to play," Douglass said. "Our goal is to continue to improve."

If Saturday night was an indicator, then there's need for improvement. The Anteaters had a great first half and then coasted in the second with a lackluster performance.

So maybe there wasn't that much to celebrate.

Guard Malachi Edmond, who got his first start in nine games and scored 11 points, carried a box of pizza as he mingled on the floor with a few remaining spectators after the game. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero huddled quietly with some of the basketball staff. Players exited the locker room quietly.

Guard Jerry Green put a different spin on the historic events as he munched on a piece of pizza. Irvine can win the title outright with a victory Thursday afternoon at the Bren Center against Cal State Fullerton.

"The good thing is that we can win the title here on Thursday," said Green, who scored a game-high 21 points. "At home, where the fans can see it and enjoy it."

Saturday night, Irvine led from start to finish, but Riverside was still hanging around in the waning moments. A jump hook by Vili Morton, who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds, cut Irvine's lead to 66-60 with 1 minute 18 seconds to go.

But then Green got a wobbly eight-footer to dance off the lip of the rim into the basket and moments later Sean Jackson got a midcourt steal and a dunk for breathing room.

Green said he thinks the reason none of his teammates were into celebrating when they heard the news from Boise--made with 22 seconds to play--was because they were upset with the way the game with Riverside turned out.

"We didn't play real well in the second half," Green said. "We were bitter about that. This should have been a 20- or 30-point lead and we were thinking about that, because we let them come back."

Green, who struggled from the floor, making five of 15 shots, made up for it at the free-throw line, where he sank nine of 10 attempts.

"I think there is some excitement," said forward Ben Jones, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. "But we need to continue to get better heading right into the Big West tournament."

Jackson chipped in with 11 points, as did Stanislav Zuzak. Reserve guard Ted Bell scored 14 points for Riverside, which joins the Big West next season.

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