SportsPulse: We have our first real bracket buster of the tournament: UC Irvine. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson explains how they did it and if they’re a threat to make a legit cinderella run.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — So much for the humble UC Irvine Anteaters.
Shortly after the 13th-seeded Anteaters upset the fourth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats Friday in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner skirted the line between bold talk and trash talk.
“UC Irvine, folks, I don’t know, live in the shadow, live like little brothers to UCLA and SC and maybe some others, Cal, Stanford, San Diego State,’’ Turner said. “Maybe like little brothers.
“Well, little brother has been in the weight room, getting better, getting ready for a chance like this.’’
The comment drew chuckles in the postgame interview room, especially from those aware that the likes of UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford are at home and the Anteaters are now the only California-based school left in the NCAA tournament.
“You know,’’ Turner continued, “we need to stick our chests out a little bit right now, I believe.’’
LIVE COVERAGE: Follow along during Friday’s first-round games
ROAD TO MINNEAPOLIS: 2019 NCAA tournament schedule and results
Stick out those chests and pound them, Anteaters. Not only did they extend their winning streak to 17 games, but also notched their first victory in the NCAA tournament.
The historic victory came against a program that was making its 31st appearance in the NCAA tournament and a year ago reached the Elite Eight. Turner, in his ninth year as UC Irvine’s head coach, also noted Kansas State is the reigning Big 12 conference champion.
“Those guys are getting rings, and we knocked them off,’’ Turner said. “That’s special for us, and sorry that they had to lose, but I’m really happy for the UC Irvine community.’’
A boisterous section of UC Irvine fans at SAP Center far outnumbered Kansas State fans and chanted “U-C-I’’ and “Eater Nation’’ as the Anteaters rallied from a 10-point deficit late and pulled ahead by as many as nine points in the second half. The throng of Anteater backs included Caron Butler, the former NBA standout whose son JC is a freshman at UC Irvine.
“That was definitely one of the things I noticed right off the bat, you know, the noise,’’ said Evan Leonard, who scored 19 points for UC Irvine. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in an arena that was that loud.’’
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There was plenty to cheer, especially when Max Hazzard, who also scored 19 points for UC Irvine, hit a 3-pointer with 1:29 left to play. He squatted low and crossed his arms fiercely while UC Irvine fans roared.
Soon they were celebrating a victory that sets up UC Irvine to play the winner of a first-round matchup between fifth-seeded Wisconsin and 12th-seeded Oregon.
“I just play with a lot of passion and a lot of joy,’’ Hazzard said. “The stage doesn’t get much bigger than this.’’
And the Anteaters looked — and sounded — like it’s a stage on which they belong.
Recent history proved more relevant as the Anteaters (31-5) extended their winning streak to 17 games in a row, a school record.
“Let’s go Eaters,’’ chanted UC Irvine’s fans and cheerleaders periodically during the spirited game.