UCI Men’s Basketball Runaway With Big West Championship

Photos courtesy of Kate Rutz-Robbins

By Henry Curi

Quarter-Finals

This past Thursday was the start of the much anticipated Big West Conference Men’s basketball tournament, where eight teams fight for the conference title and a chance to punch their ticket to the national tournament.

The UC Irvine Anteaters faced off against the last place UC Riverside Highlanders in the first round of the tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

UCI finished the regular season as the number one seed with a historic 15-1 league record and piled up the accolades as well.

Head Coach Russell Turner earned the conference coach of the year award, graduate student Jonathan Galloway racked up his third defensive player of the year award, senior Elston Jones earned sixth man of the year honors, and junior Max Hazzard earned second-team all conference.

Galloway also etched himself in UCI history as the all-time leading rebounder in school history with 927 career boards.

Everyone from the Anteaters’ side was fired up to start the game, as the student section was roaring, players were focused, and coach Turner cranked up his verbal leadership so much that it sounded like he was about to lose his voice before the half even finished.

The game weighed in the favor for the top seeded Irvine squad, as they controlled the tempo of the game early with critical defensive stops and their big men crashing the boards with force.

Hazzard was more than ready to play in this pivotal match-up, as he was able to easily rack up 13 points in the first half on 3-6 shooting from beyond the arc as well as contributing with two steals in the first 20 minutes of play.

Junior Guard Evan Leonard also played well in the first half, scoring nine points on three shots made from the field.

Irvine really gave Riverside no breathing side on the defensive end, as they only shot 33 percent from the field in the first half and their top scorer only had eight points combined.

In the second half, things only got better for the Anteaters and worse for the Highlanders, as UCI really started running away with the lead with ease.

UCI’s pressure defense held up against UCR’s offensive and allowed no easy looks at the rim, also getting deflections and causing 11 turnovers that led to fastbreak points.

With the absence of several key players, first year guard JC Butler, son of former NBA player Caron Butler, got more minutes and more of an opportunity to show what he can bring to the team’s tournament success.

Butler was able to show the flashy play he was known for in high school, as he was able to convert on a three point shot near half court as the shot clock expired and made the crowd erupt when he converted on a give-and-go dunk that put a statement on the game.

The momentum was completely on the Anteaters’ side, as the Highlanders could not buy a bucket down the stretch and looked like they were just being our ran and utterly out played this game.

UCI came out with the victory against UCR with a score 63-44, as Irvine had three players in double figures. Hazzard with 13, Leonard with 13 of his own, and freshman Collin Welp with a team-high 15 points.

UCR was held to a sub-par 31 percent from the field and 26 percent from beyond the arc.

Hazzard commented after the game about the absence of some important players but the team was still able to play Eater ball regardless.

“That’s the strength of this team. Anyone can perform on any given night , they’re gonna be ready to play and ready to play well. That’s a part of being on a really good team,” stated Hazzard.

UCI is moving on to the tournament semifinals and will face fifth seeded Long Beach State on Friday at the Honda Center.

Semi-finals

Anteaters looked to redeem themselves from their only regular-season loss against Long Beach State.

The UC Irvine men’s basketball team faced off against the Long Beach State 49ers on Friday March 15 in the semi-finals of the Big West Conference Tournament. The game served as a shot at redemption for UCI as their only loss in the regular season came at the hands of LBS.  

The match did not disappoint. From the very beginning, the first 10 minutes of action was filled with crazy calls, crazy hustle, and even crazier calls from the refs that had Irvine’s head coach, Russell Turner, in an early frenzy.  

The Anteaters were in for a battle, as Long Beach came out of the gates with a head full of steam; LBS’ full court pressure defense paved no easy buckets for UCI and their zone defense proved to be effective on allowing no easy penetration.

Usual key players could not find their rhythm due to the 49ers’ tactics, as the players and coaching staff grew increasingly frustrated and were not able to play their unstoppable Anteater basketball that fans had witnessed all season long.

Junior Max Hazzard and graduate student Robert Cartwright struggled to get the ball down the court and were allowed no breathing room to operate the offense.

Long Beach State’s Deishaun Booker was lighting it up in the first half with nine points on 4-9 shooting. Booker was able to help offensively as Mason Riggins and Bryan Alberts.

UCI shot a low 33 percent from the field in the first half and trailed Long Beach 27-33 at the end of 20 minutes. The players and the coaching staff knew there needed to be big changes in order to turn it around in the second, on which they were able to deliver.

Irvine was able to enhance their game plan and take advantage of the 49er’s fatigue from running full court press in the first half. The Anteaters were able to break LBS’ press with much more ease and were able to move around the perimeter and enter the lanes to score.

Cartwright served as the main engine that willed the team’s comeback performance, as he had that killer look in his eyes that showed that he was ready to give it his absolute all to avoid elimination.

Regardless of Long Beach’s zone defense, Cartwright drove hard to the whole whenever he found a little slither of space and was able to execute almost every time down the stretch, coming up clutch for the Anteaters and igniting his teammates to perform at their very best.

After trailing for more than half of the game, UCI was able to regain the lead with seven minutes to g,o thanks to a forced turnover and a transition bucket by Hazzard, assisted by graduate student Jonathan Galloway. From that point on, Irvine held the lead and never looked back.

The intensity the Eaters’ were able to apply on defense forced Long Beach to commit 25 turnovers, as they were able to get 13 points off fastbreaks thanks to the forced errors on the 49ers’ side.

The players were jumping out of their seats on every shot that hit the bottom of the net and every dunk which set the tone for the game. Their performance had the fans screaming in excitement and the entire Honda Center filled with the college basketball energy March Madness brings.

In the end, UC Irvine completed the comeback and came out on top, finishing 75-67. Five different players had double figure scoring, led by Cartwright’s 17 points, who shot 53 percent from the field.

UCI was able to improve their 33 percent shooting average in the first half from the field, to an impressive 60 percent in the second half on 20-33 shooting, and accounted for 50 points in the paint.

After the game, coach Turner and Cartwright spoke about the crucial victory and their advancement to the tournament finals.

“The most important thing for today was to get the win and the job’s not done. We’re gonna celebrate this for a few minutes. Obviously, it was very gratifying to get this win, that was what we were set out to do, it was the most important win of the season…until tomorrow,” said Cartwright, the Stanford alumni.

Coach Turner then capped things off with some words that showcased the focus instilled in not only himself as the vocal leader of the team, but also displayed the drive that’s motivated his players up to this point of the season, regardless of past year’s losses in the final round.

“I think this team has been outstanding, we’re focusing on what’s right in front of us. That’s what we’re gonna do again. This team is better then we’ve been in those last two years. This team’s more talented, this team’s more balanced, this team’s more deep. That doesn’t mean we’re gonna win. Last year, we got outplayed, we go outbeat. That’s what can happen on any night you take the floor,” Coach Turner said.

“We understand that, and we’re gonna do all we can right now to prepare for the incredible opportunity we have tomorrow, and we hope that a lot of our fans, a lot of people who follow this team, a lot of people who are college basketball fans around this area come watch this game, and we’re gonna give it everything we got,” Turner, who took home the Big West Conference coach of the year winner title, concluded.

Finals

Photos courtesy of Kate Rutz-Robbins. Coach Russell Turner takes part in the net-cutting ceremony.
Team captain Max Hazard lead the Anteaters in scoring at the Big West Finals.

The Orange County Rivalry was held in the Honda Center in Anaheim, with an electrifying crowd that came and supported their respected teams. Fullerton was looking for back-to-back championships as Irvine was playing with a chip on their shoulder, looking for their first national tournament berth since 2015.

This past Saturday, the UC Irvine Anteaters faced off against the Cal State Fullerton Titans in what was a rematch of last year’s Big West Conference finals match up, as both teams battled for the title and a shot to qualify for the NCAA National Tournament.

The Anteaters came out like they had everything to prove, hoping for a win to conclude their historic season and show their hard-earned number one seed was no fluke and that they are worthy to contend at the national level with players, having worked endlessly to put Irvine on the map of college basketball.

Junior guard and team captain Max Hazzard came out executing on all cylinders. Hazzard’s pure and consistent shooting led him to score three buckets from beyond the arc and gave UCI early momentum.

This led to an offensive showcase by the Anteaters, as multiple players were able to create their own shot and find easy open looks, while also making tough, contested shots.

Freshman forward Collin Welp was a key player in the first half, as he was able to connect on a three of his own and account for 11 points in the first 20 minutes.

Irvine wasn’t just a machine on the offensive end as they held Fullerton to shoot 34 percent from the field, a sub-par 15 percent from the three point land, and forced seven costly turnovers as well.

On the other side, every player on UCI’s side came with their A-game, as they shot an impressive 58 percent from the field and 71 percent from three point land as a team. Also adding in their success at the charity stripe, making 7-8 attempts.

The score at the end of the first half saw Irvine running away with the final, as Welp’s hot hand and last second buzzer beater put the the team up 42-24, as Hazzard led the team with 15 huge points.

The second half was a continuation of UCI’s incredible offensive outing, as they picked up right where they left off.  

This time, it was Welp who took control of the game as he displayed his versatile shooting package, creating his own shot from almost anywhere on the floor. The freshman from Seattle was connecting on tough turn-around jumpers and showed his range from the three, making it rain with ease and confidence.

Overall, the entire team turned on the intensity up a notch in order to secure their comfortable lead.

Stanford alumni and graduate student Robert Cartwright, along with junior guard Evan Leonard, also contributed from beyond the arc and were a menace in the paint, driving in hard to the hole and converting on and-one opportunities, digging Fullerton’s hole bigger and bigger as the game progressed.

One of UCI’s crucial tactics was their stellar perimeter defense, as they were to contest every shot that went in and only allowed 3-8 Fullerton three-pointers to go in.

Perhaps the biggest key to the game that propelled the team’s success was the containment of  the Titan’s star guard Khalil Ahmad, who was averaging 28 points per game coming into the final round.

Ahamad was only able to convert on one of his nine shot attempts from the field and was knocked of his usual game. Ahmad also had a -19 in the plus-minus ratio, his worst efficiency produced all season coming from the hands of head coach Russell Turner’s defensive system and the Anteaters’ hustle on both ends of the court.

Irvine’s extraordinary performance had them run away with the game, as every player on the roster put points up on the board and contributed all-around team basketball. There was no isolation or hero ball, just a fundamental group effort that had ‘Eater nation roaring on every possession.

As the final seconds winded down, the Irvine bench was full of emotions, as players and coaches jumped out of their seats and gave each other celebratory hugs and high-fives, the victory signaled an end to a four year drought.

UCI achieved their precious redemption against Cal State Fullerton from last year’s finals loss in stunning fashion with a score of 92-64, setting a new record for margin of victory in Big West Conference finals history.

Welp and Hazard scored 23-a-piece as they combined for 56 points on 17-23 shooting from the field. Cartwright and Leonard were in double figures as well, as they scored 10 of their own, shooting a combined 47 percent.

As a team, Irvine went a remarkable 61 percent from the floor on 34 made shots and 14 made free throws.

This is the first time since 2015 that the Anteaters have won the conference tournament and qualified for the NCAA National tournament and the second time in Turner’s era as head coach of the team.

Emotions ran high, as fans stormed the court to celebrate this long awaited victory, as the stampede of fans bombarded the team for their valiant efforts they displayed all season long.

The coaching staff and players cut the nets shortly after, a tradition for the winners of the tournament who are moving on to the big dance.

UC Irvine had capped off an incredibly memorable season. The Anteaters are amongst one of only four schools in the nation (Houston, Buffalo, and Gonzaga) with 30 wins, and rank 21st in the nation on defense. They are also one of only two schools in California who qualify for the national bracket.

Hazzard, who received the title of the most valuable player in the tournament, shared his thoughts on what this title means to the school as he said, “It means a lot. Especially being one of the only teams in California that’s gonna be in the national tournament. That’s pretty special and I don’t many people expected that at the beginning of the season, except for us. We knew that was one of our goals and it is a special thing. We all wanted to come to UC Irvine for a world-class education. But being able to hoop, get wins, and have a good time is really special.”

Turner followed that statement with his own thoughts on this season’s historic run, memorable outcome and value it holds to community.

“College basketball provides a special opportunity for a school like ours, that does exist on a world-wide scale to compete on an incredible level in everything we do. I grew up in Northern Virginia, I didn’t know what UC Irvine was, but a lot of people will see us in the bracket and learn more about our great university because of what we’ve been able to accomplish. And that’s special for the university because, what that means is that we fit in. We’re performing at a level of excellence that matches the level of excellence that’s consistent at UC Irvine, and I’m proud of that,” Turner commented.

The Anteaters will look forward to prepare for what’s ahead of March Madness, in hopes of etching the school’s name in NCAA tournament history and continue with their extraordinary wave of achievement they have earned from the very start of the season. The Anteaters will face the No. 4 seeded Kansas State Wildcats on Friday March 22.