UC Irvine is finally at the NCAA men's table, with a winning pair

UC Irvine, with two national titles in sailing, now has place in the NCAA men's basketball tourney

Will Davis II and Travis Souza, basketball nets dangling around their necks like medals, looked a bit dazed as they soaked in a moment that every player in UC Irvine's undistinguished basketball history had dreamed about.

There was an "I'm-numb" tone to their voices. They had traveled a similar path, winning a lot of games together as teammates, from youth club competition to New Hampton (N.H.) Prep to Irvine. Now they were being asked to explain what they had seen in a college that had three national titles in sailing but never been to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"We knew this was a place where we could start from the ground and build," Souza said.

Davis and Souza, both seniors, were the initial bricks and mortar in a project that broke new ground last week with a victory over Hawaii in the Big West tournament championship game. The victory earned Irvine a place in the NCAA's field of 68, and an opening-round date against No. 14 Louisville on Friday in Seattle.

"I owe a big debt of gratitude to those two guys because they came here when this was like a dream," Irvine Coach Russell Turner said after the Hawaii game. "They made it happen."

Davis, a 6-foot-8 forward, averages 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds, both team highs. Souza, a 6-5 guard, averages 7.4 points and is shooting 46% from three-point range. Those are solid numbers but only indicate part of their value. They are team leaders in attitude and focus.

"Losing was not an option," Davis said after the Hawaii game.

Like Irvine, it took a while for Davis and Souza to build toward their championship moment.

Air Force was the only Division I program that wanted Davis when he graduated from Sacramento High. And that was one more major-college offer than Souza had coming out of Turlock High, also in the Central Valley.

Davis was a late bloomer after a six-inch growth spurt during his sophomore year in high school. It took time to adjust to his longer frame and he didn't start on the varsity until he was a senior.

Souza was an instant hit at Turlock, starting on the varsity as a freshman and being chosen district player of the year as a senior. But he was the big fish in a small pond.

They grew up 90 miles apart but were teammates on the Bay Area Hoosiers, a club team.

The first impressions of each other are still vivid.

"I was having dinner with our coach after practice and he said, 'Oh, by the way, we're trying to get this player, a real athletic wing,' " Souza said. "The next practice, there was Will. There was an outlet pass, a lob and a dunk. I thought, 'This could work.' "

Recalled Davis: "I get there and this guy starts knocking down threes. He was doing that all day. I was like, 'OK, we have great shooters on this team.' "

It was a summer of fun, then they went back to their high schools. A year later, Davis enrolled in prep school across the country, at New Hampton.

"We were playing three-on-three games in the gym and the coach comes and said, 'I have a couple of new players,' " Davis said. "There was Travis."

A partnership evolved.

"We always have had that connection," Davis said. "You can feel it on the court. He knows when I'm rolling to the basket. I get the ball on the post and I know where he is on the perimeter. It's an unconscious thing we developed from playing so many years together."

Coming to Irvine was not a package deal, however.

When Turner was hired by Irvine in 2010, he had spent the previous six seasons as an assistant with the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Knowing he had to quickly reacquaint with the college game — and needing players — he reached out to Phil Doherty, coach of the Bay Area Hoosiers.

Doherty suggested Davis and Souza.

Davis was a no-brainer. "It was easy to recognize his abilities," Turner recalled. "The combination of size and athleticism are the kind of things that make you say 'yeah."

Turner took Souza sight unseen, but didn't go out on a limb. Souza came to Irvine as an invited walk-on — without a scholarship. It didn't take him long to earn one, though.

"He struck me as someone like me," Turner said. "He was overlooked."

The coach had his building blocks.

Davis, Turner said, "is going to go down as one of the best players in our history." Of Souza, Turner said it was clear he "wanted badly to accomplish something like we did tonight."

Davis and Souza said they believed all along — in each other, in their team — even as the clock was running out on their college careers.

"We felt like we could make this program blow up," Davis said, "and that's what we did."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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