In a year in which UCLA underachieved and fired its coach, USC and San Diego State also missed the NCAA tournament and Cal and Stanford finished near the bottom of a historically weak Pac-12, UC Irvine coach Russell Turner hasn’t been shy about what that means.
He has told anyone who will listen the past few weeks that the Anteaters are California’s best team.
Thirteenth-seeded UC Irvine validated its coach’s big talk on Friday afternoon in San Jose with the most significant win in program history. The Big West champion Anteaters secured their school’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory, a 70-64 upset over fourth-seeded Kansas State.
Max Hazzard, the son of former UCLA legend Walt Hazzard, scored a game-high 19 points and buried five 3-pointers, the last of which gave UC Irvine a five-point lead with 90 seconds to play. Kansas State had the ball down two in the final minute, but a miscommunication between Barry Brown and Cartier Diarra resulted in a costly turnover, enabling Evan Leonard to ice the game for the Anteaters with four free throws in the final 18 seconds.
“We came into the game confident with belief that we could win, and I think that belief showed throughout the game, especially when we were down early,” Turner told reporters in San Jose. “We made some defensive adjustments and changes and made the plays to come out on top.”
That UC Irvine was able to compete with Kansas State was not a huge surprise despite the gap in their NCAA tournament seedings. The Anteaters were a popular upset pick because they not only entered the NCAA tournament with a 30-5 record, they also matched up very well against the Wildcats.
A big, experienced team led by frontcourt standouts Jonathan Galloway and Tommy Rutherford, UC Irvine was built to give Kansas State fits. The Anteaters lead the nation in two-point percentage defense and excel at giving up nothing easy at the rim.
That’s a good formula against Kansas State, a poor outside shooting team that was playing without maybe its best 3-point shooting threat. Injured forward Dean Wade shoots 41.8 percent from behind the arc and excels at freeing up driving lanes for his teammates by forcing opposing big men to guard him on the perimeter.
With Wade out and co-star Barry Brown mired in first-half foul trouble and unable to generate any rhythm after halftime, Kansas State struggled offensively and could never put any distance between itself and UC Irvine. The Wildcats shot 8-for-27 from behind the arc and 37.3 percent overall from the field, disastrous numbers that not even their offensive rebounding advantage or their always-solid defense could overcome.
Falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament is a huge disappointment for a Kansas State team that reached the Elite Eight last March. The Wildcats claimed a share of the Big 12 title despite lingering injuries to Wade and several other key players, but their postseason was a disappointment.
UC Irvine advances to face 12th-seeded Oregon on Sunday with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake. With Saint Mary’s having lost to Villanova on Thursday night, the Anteaters are the only California team left in the NCAA tournament, shining further spotlight on a topic Turner has been highlighting for awhile.
“I spoke about it a few weeks ago because I wanted to draw attention to the fact that we were succeeding at the level we were, and I knew that was a gamble, because you could easily fall flat,” Turner said. “And we could have easily lost in the Big West tournament like we did a year ago. Or we could have easily come out here tonight against a Big 12 team like a lot of other 13 seeds did and get blown out.
“But we seemed to gain momentum with this group off of our confidence, and I think that's because we've earned it. And so that's fun, you know. It ain't bragging if you're doing it, Yogi Berra said.”
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