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COLLEGE BASKETBALL * BIG WEST TOURNAMENTS

Anteaters Continue to Live on the Edge

College basketball: Irvine struggles again in 71-66 victory over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

March 09, 2001|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UC Irvine continues to play as if it is on borrowed time.

The Anteaters made only 39% of their field-goal attempts, missed seven important free throws in the second half and lost the battle on the backboards to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Thursday night.

But, as has been their pattern most of this storybook season, they found a way to win a close one.

This time it took 31 points and nine rebounds from (who else?) guard Jerry Green to stave off the Mustangs, 71-66, in the opening round of the Big West Conference men's basketball tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Sean Jackson chipped in 15 points for the Anteaters (25-3), who will face Pacific in the semifinals tonight.

Irvine, despite capturing the Big West regular-season title, has stumbled its way into and out of tight game situations for several weeks without a lot of production from some of its key players. Of the five other Anteaters who scored Thursday, none had more than six points and their collective shooting percentage--including a one-for-nine effort from senior guard Malachi Edmond, who started in place of center Stanislav Zuzak--was 33% (eight for 24).

"That's the way it has been," said Irvine Coach Pat Douglass. "I think we won one league game by double figures. Each game we've had to scratch out what we can. We prepare and react, but I've never looked at us as a dominant team."

Indeed, San Luis Obispo, which played without its leading rebounder, former Woodbridge High forward Brandon Beeson, who is injured, didn't think so either. The Mustangs (9-19) got 27 points from senior guard Watende Favors and 23 points and 10 rebounds from senior forward Chris Bjorklund, the school's all-time scoring leader. They held a 46-37 advantage on the backboards and got off 18 more shots than the Anteaters.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs' shifting 2-3 zone defense controlled the key. Forward Ben Jones, Irvine's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, tallied five points and had three rebounds. Zuzak scored six points and had five rebounds but made only one of his four field-goal attempts.

"I think tonight we made them take the shots they didn't want to take," Bjorklund said.

Green blamed the Anteaters' woes on a case of nerves.

Jackson agreed. During one second-half stretch he became so enraged at the play of some of his teammates that he went on a towel-tossing, finger-pointing frenzy after Douglass had signaled for a timeout.

"Sometimes they need to hear it from someone else besides Coach," Jackson said of the tirade. "They weren't playing as hard as they should have been and that's where my frustration with them takes over."

Nonetheless, Irvine advanced out of the first round of this tournament for the eighth time in 21 years. Green's three-pointer to beat the buzzer gave the Anteaters a 36-30 halftime lead and they extended that to 40-30 on a pair of free throws by Green a little over a minute into the second half.

But San Luis Obispo rallied with a 17-3 run that ended with the Mustangs in front, 47-43, following a basket by Favors with 13:16 to play.

Not long after his tantrum, Jackson answered with a three-pointer to tie the score. San Luis Obispo center Varnie Dennis answered with a turnaround jumper, then Jackson buried another three-pointer to put Irvine on top for good, 50-49, with 7:54 to go.

From there the Anteaters went on an 11-4 run for a 61-53 lead.

"Some of the guys were having a tough time with [pressure]," Green said. "This is another season and some of them may have felt like there is pressure on the team. It's a little different. Whoever we played has come after us."

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