Luke Nelson came 5,000 miles to take this last step.
Now Nelson and the Anteaters are on the verge of ending one of the nation's longest streaks after defeating UC Santa Barbara, 72-63 in overtime, in a Big West Conference tournament semifinal on Friday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
"That would mean so much to me," Nelson said. "That was something the coaches pushed to me. They had never been to the tournament and felt, with me, they could. That made me love the place even more."
Santa Barbara led, 59-53, with three minutes left but scored only four more points in the second half. The Gauchos had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but Alan Williams' 12-footer bounced off the rim.
Things fell Irvine's way in overtime. The Anteaters scored the first four points, the last on a layup by 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Williams, the Gauchos' leading scorer, injured his shoulder on the play. He returned after Nelson dropped a three-pointer for a 66-59 lead.
Ndiaye and Will Davis II each had 18 points to lead Irvine. Ndiaye scored seven in the last two minutes of regulation and overtime.
Nelson's second three-pointer in overtime gave the Anteaters a 69-63 lead and left them one win away from securing their first NCAA tournament bid.
"We all know how important this is," said Nelson, who had 14 points.
Irvine moved to the Division I level in 1978 and has spent 38 seasons chasing a spot in the NCAA tournament. It is tied for the 11th-longest streak without a tournament appearance in the nation.
The Anteaters have reached the conference tournament championship game three times, the last time in 2008. A year ago, they won the regular-season championship but were bounced in the tournament semifinals by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"That is big motivation," Nelson said. "We found out that we had a great team last year and now we have a year experience. It gave us more confidence this year. We feel there is no excuse."
The Anteaters (20-12) didn't need any after a grueling game with the Gauchos (19-13).
Irvine jumped to an 11-0 lead, by dominating inside. Davis had 12 points in the first half, including a dunk that gave the Anteaters a 34-27 halftime lead. Ndiaye had 11 points.
Behind those two, Irvine shot 46% from the field in the first half. Santa Barbara shot 30%.
The Gauchos, who beat the Anteaters two weeks ago, were not going away that easy.
Williams, who scored 24 points, began to assert himself in the second half. The Anteaters appeared to be losing a game of attrition. Then Ndiaye re-asserted himself. He made seven of 11 shots in the game, none bigger than a dunk that cut Irvine's deficit to four points, 59-55. He scored on a layup moments later.
On the other end, Ndiaye was a wall. He blocked four shots, including Michael Bryson's try with a minute left to keep the Anteaters within one. Ndiaye sank a free throw with 49 seconds left to tie the score, 59-59.