Together We Zot

Courtesy of Ted S. Warren

Courtesy of Ted S. Warren

 

UC Irvine’s first NCAA Tournament appearance may have ended in heartbreaking fashion with a 57-55 loss to fourth-seeded Louisville, but the Anteater’s history-making run gave birth to an upwelling of campus pride to a degree previously unfounded in the university’s 50-year history.

Following the Anteater’s 67-58 victory over Hawai’i in the finals of the Big West Tournament, students, alumni and fans stormed the court with unbridled jubilation. A celebration long overdue, the disappointment of failing to qualify for the Big Dance in prior years were drowned out by chants of “UCI!” resonating through the Honda Center.

“I’m just really satisfied and excited for our program and the UCI community to have this experience,” said Turner following the team’s win. “Our players have all been recruited here to leave a mark on this community and I feel like by winning tonight we did that.”

Over the course of the next week, the men’s basketball team found themselves engulfed in a media frenzy to accentuate an already-hectic finals week. With the buzz of seeing an Anteater dance for the first time, Coach Turner and players alike were bombarded with a seemingly never-ending array of media interviews and press conferences.

Around the nation, fans were quickly becoming attuned to UC Irvine’s unique mascot and its’ status as a potential Cinderella Story.

“Pulling for the UC Irvine Anteaters to win it all, because that’s probably the coolest mascot I’ve ever heard of in my entire life” said one fan on Twitter.

Though the team’s Cinderella story came to a premature end at the hands of the Cardinals, the team received a tremendous outpouring of support from current students and alums alike on social media.

“Couldn’t be more proud to be an Anteater Alum right now!! Such a hard fought battle!” tweeted one alum.

“We are SO proud of the UCI Anteaters! We are excited for next year and the future of UCI Men’s basketball!” tweeted another.

In prior years, campus spirit was only displayed in pockets, such as during the baseball team’s run to the College World Series in 2014 or the back-to-back national championships by the men’s volleyball team from 2012-2013. However, neither baseball nor volleyball possesses the campuswide appeal of basketball, the university’s most popular athletic offering. As the team given the most media exposure, Coach Turner’s squad possesses the greatest platform to generate Anteater pride across campus.

“That’s what I believe the success in men’s basketball could be, is some kind of momentum builder for the pride that so many folks have in UC Irvine. I think we tapped into that a little bit this year, if we had been able to win in the NCAA tournament, we might have been able to see that momentum multiply exponentially, and that’s what I’m hoping down the line can happen.” said Coach Turner.

During their match against Louisville, a team making its 41st appearance in the NCAA Tournament and just two years removed from winning the national championship, the Anteaters demonstrated remarkable poise and composure. In lieu of a wide-eyed team faltering underneath the glow of the national spotlight was an unrelenting underdog that proved it belonged.

“We went there knowing that we were playing to win, not playing cause we were happy to be there. I think that was reflected and everybody could see it.” said Coach Turner.

The Anteater’s maturity was further displayed during the press conference following the team’s loss. With six seconds remaining in regulation and a chance to tie or possibly win the game, the Anteaters inbounded the ball to Alex Young, who drew contact by a Louisville player looking to use their foul to give. However, the contact did not draw a whistle, resulting in time expiring for a UCI loss.

Had a foul been called, the Anteaters’ chances of winning would have still remained rather slim, but the call would have afforded the team a chance to inbound with three to four seconds left. Regardless, Young chose not to fault for the referees for the no-call, shouldering the responsibility of the final play upon himself.

“Being a point guard and leader on this team, I’ve got to make sure we’re all right in the right spot so we can get a shot up in that last possession.” said junior guard Alex Young.

Despite suffering an agonizing loss in front of a national audience, Young conducted himself with class and dignity in the postgame press conference. Young’s positive representation of the Anteater community harkens back to Coach Turner, who sought out players that could identify with the university’s core values.

“We’ve done a good job of recruiting people to represent this place well. The players on our team have grown and [have learned to take] that responsibility seriously,” said Coach Turner.

For Coach Turner, the experience of March Madness is something he is no stranger to. During his time as a player for Hampton Sydney, Turner led the program to its first two NCAA appearances, and helped Stanford advance to three straight NCAA tournaments as an assistant coach.

Nonetheless, Coach Turner’s tenure with UC Irvine is no doubt a unique one as it marks the first time the Virginia native has come into a program without an established, consistent history of success instilled a new standard of unheralded excellence.

Although the groundwork for sustained success in the program was in place, there still remained plenty of work to be done upon Turner’s arrival, such as changing the overall mentality of the program.

“I felt like there was an inferiority complex in our basketball program, that stood in our way somehow. [The players] didn’t seem to view this as the incredible opportunity that it is. We seemed to have a mentality that we were somehow less than they are at UCLA or SC or Louisville,” said Coach Turner. “Obviously we’re not the same as those institutions, but what we have here is incredibly good.”

Coach Turner quickly set about recruiting players with the mindset of leading the program to its first NCAA Tournament and securing their names in the annuls of program history.

“I knew that if I went under Coach Turner’s wing, that he would turn the program around and make it into a winning program, and that’s what he’s done here at UC Irvine,” said Will Davis II.

With the Anteaters finishing the season with an overall record of 21-13, Coach Turner has now led UC Irvine to three consecutive seasons with 20 plus wins, a program first.

“I still believe there’s incredible untapped or unrealized potential here at UC Irvine within our university and specifically within our athletics program. Our job is to work as hard as we can, to close the gap between the potential and the reality,” said Turner.

Perhaps an example of how far-fetched the reality of the team achieving the NCAA Tournament was can be seen with the case of sophomore guard Luke Nelson taking his history final the morning of the NCAA Tournament. While Coach Turner may not have exactly been thrilled with the decision, he does not fault Nelson’s professor, noting that it highlights the difference in the academic-athletic climates between UC Irvine and other universities.

“What I hope can be result of our success is a greater understanding that athletics and academics can work together.” said Turner. “I would never say that athletics are a priority above academic, but I don’t know that it’s necessary for a kid to take an exam the same day he’s playing the NCAA tournament either.”

Having now achieved his goal of leading the program to its first NCAA appearance, the bar has now been raised for Coach Turner to aim for even loftier goals.

“I think, now, the goal has changed for our program a little bit, and I am excited about that. I have said many times recently that winning changes people, and it changes organizations [and schools] because it allows you to recalibrate your expectation of what’s possible” said Coach Turner.

Despite turning the fortunes of the team around, Coach Turner isn’t ready to rest on the his laurels, expressing hope that the program can sets its sights on even greater heights.

“We need to continue to strive to get better, rather than celebrate what we’ve achieved at this point. I am happy to say that we clearly taken steps forward each year, for the past three years. That gets harder the further we go to continue to take steps forward. I’m hoping that we will continue to reach beyond our grasp.”