With their first round of 32 appearance in the NCAA tournament, the UC Irvine Anteaters faced off against the twelfth-seeded Oregon Ducks in hopes of continuing their extraordinary run into the Sweet 16 and extend their 17 game winning streak, the longest current streak in the entire nation.
After coming off of a win against Kansas State in the first round, and clinching their first tournament win in school history, UCI gained pivotal experience, moving forward to take on an Oregon powerhouse that’s loaded with size.
The Ducks showed early on just how versatile on offense they were, taking the ball to the rack and having big men drain contested perimeter three-pointers.
Oregon’s senior forward Paul White was a sniper from the wing, as he got his team going along with junior guard Payton Pritchard’s impressive point guard play, dictating the flow of the game in the early going.
Irvine struggled to get their offense going thanks to Oregon’s defensive tenacity, playing off-ball and allowing no player to get any easy open looks.
Junior guard Max Hazzard’s usual offensive showing was contained in the first half, as his range from beyond the arc was shut down by 6-foot-9-inch freshman forward Louis King.
As the first half wound down, the Ducks were able to convert on six huge three-pointers and make 46.7 percent of their field goals.
The Anteaters had yet to find their grove, as they shot a sub-par 33.3 percent from the field.
The score at the end of the first half was 35-23, with the Oregon Ducks ahead.
UC Irvine looked to turn things around, though, as they came out of the gate running and looking to be a whole different ball club from the first period.
The Anteaters were forcing turnovers, getting foul calls, and creating their own shots with plays that showed why they’re the No. 1 team in all of California, along with the heart and hustle that showed why they belonged in the tournament.
UCI went on a 14-0 run in the first six minutes of the second half that swung the momentum in their favor, causing the Irvine faithful to erupt in the SAP Center in San Jose.
Irvine obtained their first lead at the 14:20 mark, 37-35. But Oregon had an answer back: the Ducks began to put pressure defense on the Anteaters again, forcing turnovers and getting points off that.
Oregon went on a run of their own and never looked back. The team’s perimeter shooters came alive again and the Ducks put on an athletic dunk fest to put their statement on the game. They had four different players in double figures and used the three-point line as their factor for the lead, converting on 13 from long range.
UC Irvine’s Tommy Rutherford, Robert Cartwright, and Evan Leonard each went off for double-figure scoring of their own, clawing at any chance of a late comeback to give their season one last hope.
Ultimately, Irvine’s heroic efforts weren’t enough to make it past round 32, as Oregon defeated the Anteaters with a score of 73-54, ending the best season in program history.
The Anteaters accomplished an overall record of 31-6, claimed the regular season league title, won the Big West Conference tournament to punch their ticket to the big dance for the first time since 2015, and got their first NCAA tournament win in school history.
The accolades they’ve received are reflective of how far they’ve come as a program and as a basketball team, but they don’t necessarily reflect everything else that can’t be measured by statistics.
Head Coach Russell Turner gave a retrospective and emotional insight on what being part of history means to the team and everyone that has been on their side since the very beginning, as UCI’s impact on the nation is evident.
“Our university has earned that respect. Our university is incredible now. In 51 years of existence, to see what our university has accomplished, is really rare, and athletically, in what we hope to do for this basketball program is max that level of excellence. And that level of excellence is really high, so we try to do our part in representing our university, through our platform of men’s basketball. We’ve made some progress, clearly, by being here again and by advancing in this tournament. I know we’ve brought great pride to the students of our university, to the alumni of our university, to the faculty of our university, to the people who live in our community. And that’s special. It’s special to feel what we felt.”
Turner followed that statement with his belief that topping a season like this — acknowledging the fact that bettering 31 wins is a challenge — but getting better and continuing to grow with the team and players he loves is what he embraces and looks forward to.
As UC Irvine’s season comes to a close, this tournament experience can be proven to be beneficial in the future, as lower-classmen will only get better, the returning seniors only hungry for more, and the entire community they represent will empower their impact on and off the basketball court.