UC Irvine makes school history as NCAA tournament experience awaits

UC Irvine basketball players make their mark on school history, now get to pursue more at NCAA tournament

UC Irvine has 11 NCAA Division I championship banners hanging in the Bren Center, just like UCLA men's basketball team has in Pauley Pavilion.

Except, Irvine's titles are in men's volleyball, water polo and sailing.

So there was more than a little glee on the Irvine campus that the Anteaters are coming off the beach for this NCAA moment.

After nearly four decades of waiting, Irvine is in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Sophomore guard Luke Nelson dreamed of this moment as a boy … in England.

"I was always watching the tournament," Nelson said. "If I missed a game, I would find it and catch up. It was something I wanted to be a part of at some point."

Going to Irvine wasn't the surest path. Yet, Nelson and his teammates will find themselves in Seattle on Friday, facing No. 14 Louisville in the first round of the East Regional.

"This is really satisfying, and exciting for our program and the UCI community to have this experience," Coach Russell Turner said. "Our players have all been recruited here to leave a mark on the community, and we did that."

The Anteaters had never qualified for the tournament since moving to the Division I level in 1978. But late Saturday night, they put away Hawaii, 67-58, in the Big West tournament final, to earn the conference's automatic bid. It sent students rushing to the floor at the Honda Center, where they let loose pent-up frustration in a postgame celebration.

Irvine players did not leave the arena until after midnight. The awoke Sunday to the business at hand. They would play the Cardinals, who won the national championship in 2013.

"We're ready for anybody," guard Travis Souza said. "We know we have the ability to play with the good teams if we play the right way."

The Anteaters lost in overtime at NCAA tournament-bound Oregon this season. They also played No. 5 Arizona tight before losing by 17 in Tucson.

Respectable moments, but they didn't get the Anteaters any closer to their first NCAA tournament. Irvine battled through injuries. Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters' 7-foot-6 center, missed 19 games with a foot injury and Nelson missed six with a broken bone in his face. The Anteaters still finished tied for second in regular-season conference play.

"I came here with making the [NCAA] tournament as my goal," Nelson said.

Nelson scored 17 points, including two three-pointers late to push Irvine over the top against Hawaii.

Irvine had reached the conference tournament championship games five other times but was never able to claim the conference's automatic NCAA bid.

For some players, time was running out.

"This was my last chance, so I felt like this was the year we had to make it because there was no other option, " senior forward Will Davis II said. "I chose Irvine because I wanted to go to a place where I could leave a mark. I knew this was a growing program."

Can it grow some more this week?

"All our kids grew up watching the tournament," Turner said. "They know upsets happen."

Of course, Turner laughed and said, "that works both ways. Louisville knows that too."

Still, the opportunity is there, one that could further change the perception the Anteaters were incapable of consistently competing with big programs.

"Winning changes people, it can change schools and that's what we hope to do," Turner said. "I hope we can get over the idea that we can't do it here. We obviously can."

The Anteaters are learning the tournament brings unforeseen challenges. This week is finals week at Irvine, something that players will have to juggle with their game preparation.

Added to that is the hangover effect from having reached the tournament for the first time.

Getting refocused "won't be easy," Turner said. But, he said, "hopefully, finals will be good for us. Players can focus on taking care of those."

Then comes the tournament.

"I knew I could be a part of school history and doing something special at Irvine that no other team has done here before," Nelson said.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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