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UC Irvine vs. Oregon: A Cinderella will advance to the Sweet 16

UC Irvine v Kansas State
UC Irvine’s Evan Leonard, left, Jonathan Galloway, center, and Elston Jones celebrate the Anteaters’ victory over Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Cinderella returns to the NCAA tournament floor Sunday at SAP Center.

And so do the 13th seeds from charming, diminutive UC Irvine.

When the Anteaters and Oregon meet in the second round of the South Regional, the teams will be competing to extend their respective seasons and fairy tales.

“I guess we’re a Cinderella too,” Ducks guard Payton Pritchard said. “I mean, they got a much better record than us. At this point, the question is who’s going to continue this great story?”

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While Irvine was emerging from the nationally ignored Big West, Oregon nearly disappeared completely in the Pac-12 only a month ago.

The Ducks had just lost three straight — including unsightly defeats at USC and UCLA — and were coming unwound.

But they’ve since won nine in a row, clinched an NCAA berth by winning their conference tournament and ripped Wisconsin 72-54 in the opening round.

Still, Oregon is seeded just one spot ahead of Irvine and sits at 24-12 compared to the Anteaters’ 31-5, a victory total that is now a school record every time they win.

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For two teams that appeared to be unlikely second-round survivors for much of this season, the glass slipper is most certainly half-full.

“Cinderella…yeah, not every guy would like to be called that,” Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “I don’t mind it because I think it’s a positive expression for teams in this tournament that do something special.

“But that doesn’t really matter. That’s the great thing about this tournament. You get to settle it in a rectangle. And what your seed is doesn’t matter…So if they call us Cinderella, that’s fine. But I think we’ve earned everybody’s respect, whatever they call us.”

The Anteaters no question have everyone’s attention, their 70-64 victory Friday over Kansas State the school’s first ever in this storied event.

They were the highest-numbered seed to move on and, with Wofford falling Saturday, have the nation’s longest winning streak at 17.

They’ve lost only once in 21 games in 2019 and remain undefeated — 8-0 — under the most stressful of conditions: games decided by five points or fewer.

So it was that a group of players largely unnoticed over the past five months suddenly found themselves Saturday watching 6-foot-10 Jonathan Galloway being interviewed by six reporters while he laid on the locker room floor with his legs extending up the wall as a way to stretch his hamstrings.

“The recognition is very special,” said guard Robert Cartwright, who recorded the comical scene around Galloway with his phone. “People are taking notice across the country. That’s very cool.

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“We’re living our dream here. As a little kid, you see the NCAA tournament. You watch ‘One Shining Moment’ and you hope that you’ll have the opportunity to do that one day. We’re in the middle of it right now. We believe we still have a long way to go. We believe we have a very good chance to win this game.”

After beating Kansas State, the Anteaters chanted and swayed in their locker room. Galloway and freshman Collin Welp placed a sticker bearing the school’s name on a poster representing the next round of NCAA’s bracket. Forward Tommy Rutherford said there “was just an energy like no other.”

At one point, Turner walked into the middle of the joyous mass and, 27 years after his playing career ended, broke down into a classic defensive stance. Classic, at least, except for the part where he shimmied his 48-year-old shoulders.

In the final weeks of the regular season, the motto around this team became “If you want to dance, get in the stance.” It has since been updated.

“Now,” senior Spencer Rivers said, “it’s if you want to advance, get in the stance.”

The Anteaters aren’t playing or acting or sounding like underdogs. Several of them talked about how the notion of winning in the NCAA tournament has been around since their first fall practice.

They praised Oregon and promised they were focused on nothing more than the Ducks but also insisted they know they can compete with one of the Pac-12’s two remaining tournament teams.

The idea of Cinderella probably isn’t really a part of the mind-set of either the Anteaters or Ducks, Oregon forward Kenny Wooten interrupting a question Saturday to ask for clarification of what the term Cinderella even means.

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Then again, Wooten also said the only anteater with which he was familiar was “Alf,” a late-1980s television puppet that was supposed to be some sort of a space alien.

“However the media wants to portray us,” Cartwright said. “But we don’t see ourselves that way. We understand that might come with our seeding. But we look at ourselves as a high-level team that can compete with pretty much anybody.”

Irvine has another chance to prove it Sunday. And so does Oregon. Here, in a rectangle. Only one story can continue.

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jeff.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffMillerLAT


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