For the UC Irvine men’s basketball program, the fifth time proved to be the charm.
After 38 years, the Anteaters had finally made history with a 67-58 victory over Hawai’i in the finals of the Big West Championship Tournament Saturday night at the Honda Center to advance to their first NCAA Tournament.
Upon the final buzzer sounding, all pandemonium broke loose as UCI fans stormed the court in a collective frenzy, erupting into chants of “UCI!” Members of the team proudly put on their championship t-shirts and hats, and patiently obliged the Anteater faithful who jostled with one another to grab a picture with their heroes.
“I’m so proud of you,” shouted Coach Turner to junior guard Alex Young in an emotional embrace. “We did it…We did it!”
For several members of ‘Eater Nation in attendance, the moment served as a sweet catharsis following years of anguish and disappointment.
The Anteaters had played in the Big West Championship game four times (1988, 1994, 2008, 2013) prior to Saturday night, but failed to secure their ticket to the Big Dance each time.
In 2013, the fourth-seeded Anteater upset first seed Long Beach State to advance to the final only to fall to Pacific 55-64. Last year, bolstered by the additions of then-freshman guard Luke Nelson and 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiyae, the Anteaters claimed the Big West Conference Title and the first seed in the tournament, but were upset by seventh seeded Cal Poly in the semifinals.
“We came here two years ago, finals, and we lost, and we knew what that heartbreak felt like, and having felt the other side of it now, it’s a phenomenal feeling, it’s great.” said senior guard Travis Souza.
Though this season will mark the Anteater’s first time to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Russell Turner is no stranger to March Madness. Between his stints as an assistant coach for Wake Forest University and Stanford, Coach Turner has advanced to the Big Dance a total of seven times prior to signing with UC Irvine.
“Our players have all been recruited here to leave a mark on this community. I feel like by winning tonight we did that, what I think is that winning changes people, it can change schools, and that’s what hope to do is to have a positive impact through what we’ve been able to accomplish,” said Coach Turner. “What I hope we can do is get over the idea that we can’t do it here, because we obviously can.”
Projected to finish first in the preseason polls this season, the Anteaters were hampered by a series of unexpected injuries. Ndiaye, last year’s Big West Defensive Player of the Year, missed 19 games due to a foot injury while Nelson, who earned Freshman of the Year accolades, missed six with a facial injury.
“This year we also had so many different injuries, different trials and tribulations throughout the entire year, and I felt like that just strengthened us, because different people had to step up, and then I felt that just made us deeper as a whole time,” said Davis.
Davis, who was named the tournament MVP, had 10 points and 10 rebounds to collective his third consecutive double-double. Davis is the first player to collect three doubles-doubles in three games in the history of the Big West Tournament.
“Will Davis, he’s going to down as one of the best players in our program’s history, I don’t care what anybody says,” said Coach Turner. “He’s a player that I’m really proud of cause he’s gotten better and better every year, and I think everybody at UCI has seen that.
Nelson, an all-tournament player, led all Anteaters with 17 points alongside 2 assists and 2 steals for the night. Nelson finishes the tournament average 15 points and recorded 13 assists and five steals.
“He has endured a lot of adversity this season, but the reason I recruited him was so he’d have nights like tonight, and make plays like he did tonight” said Coach Turner.
The victory was a surreal moment for Nelson, who stayed up late to record college matches while growing up as a kid in England.
“That was one of the things that really drew me to come here, the fact that I could be a part of school history, and do something special at UC Irvine, that no other team has done here before,” said Nelson.
UC Irvine had previously met Hawai’i twice in the regular season, with both victories coming the way of the Anteaters; 78-72 on Jan. 24, and 75-60 on Feb. 19.
Determined not to be defeated a third time, the Rainbow Warriors came out firing on all fronts from the start, nailing four three pointers en route to a 20-7 lead in the first 7 and a half minutes. After weathering the early onslaught, the Anteaters battled back, trimming the lead down to just a 33-29 deficit at the half.
“I was confident that if we raised our defensive level just a little bit, we would be able to make them miss some of the same shots they had made,” said Coach Turner. “I thought we could grind them down with our defense, we’d beat them three times this year, and we made the games in each case about our ability to defend.”
Davis, who had two points (1 of 4) in the first half, was equally as poised about his team’s ability to rebound from their slow start.
“I was telling our team that we just gotta keep playing our defense,” said Davis. “We know that their making all their shots right now, and their not gonna keep this pace up for the entire game.”
UCI opened the second half with a pair of jumpers by Davis and Nelson to tie the game for the first time at 33 with 18:47 remaining. Both teams then began trading points before a short hook shot by sophomore center Ioannis Dimakopoulos pushed UCI up 41-39 with 11:02 remaining for their first lead of the game.
Ndiyae extended the UCI lead to 43-40, but Hawai’ii answered with two consecutive lay ups to retake the lead 45-43 with 8:27 remaining.
A jumper by junior guard Alex Young at the 6:21 mark put the Anteaters up for good at 48-47. Two free throws by Nelson at 4:09 capped off an 8-0 run that put up the Anteaters up 52-47.
Sophomore Hawai’i guard Aaron Valdes ended the drought for the Rainbow Warriors with a three pointer near the three-minute mark to draw within two at 52-50, but a jumper by junior guard Aaron Wright and a pair of free throws by Young put UCI up 56-50 with 2:07 remaining.
Nelson nailed his only three pointer of the game at 1:24 to give the Anteaters a 59-52 cushion, but senior guard Garrett Nevels responded with one of his own at the 1:07 mark.
Junior guard Roderick Bobbitt converted on a three-point play to draw within three at 61-58 with 45 seconds left, but that was as close as the Rainbow Warriors would get. UC Irvine went on to score the final six points to secure the win, with Ndiyae blocking Hawai’i’s final shot for good measure.
“This my senior year, this is my last chance, I’m glad that this is the year that we had to make it, like there’s no other option,” said Davis, who scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. “So, we came out, played our hearts tonight, and ended up victorious in the end.”
Ndiaye finished with eight points, six rebounds, and two blocked shots, while Young recorded 10 points and four assists. Dimakopoulos added seven points while Aaron Wright and Souza each contributed five apiece.
Aaron Valdes recorded 17 points and seven rebounds for Hawai’I, while Nevels had 14 points, two assists, and a steal.
Though the Anteaters are still relishing in the aftermath of their history-making win, Coach Turner knows that the team cannot celebrate for too long if they are to have any hope of making a run in the tournament.
“One thing that I know is that you gotta get yourself ready to play, and get over the wonderful feeling that we’re experiencing now,” said Coach Turner. “You gotta get ready to play, and if we do that, all these guys, they know that teams like us can accomplish great things, so we’ll try to prepare and take our best shot.