When the game was there to be won, with everyone watching and more than a few wondering, UC Irvine did the darnedest of things for a 13th seed.
The Anteaters flexed, proudly and playfully posing, not unlike their junior shooting guard, Max Hazzard, who punctuated his 3-pointer from the deep corner by crouching low and shooting daggers from his pupils.
The late animated rainbow helped lift Irvine to a 70-64 victory over fourth-seeded Kansas State on Friday for the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history.
The champions of the quaint, one-bid Big West Conference, winners of 17 in a row, move on as the only California school still alive in the event that defines this sport.
“You know, UC Irvine folks, I don’t know, live in the shadow, live like little brothers to UCLA and ’SC and maybe some others, Cal, Stanford, San Diego State,” coach Russell Turner said.
“Well, little brother has been in the weight room, getting better, getting ready for a chance like this. So I’m really happy for these players to be able to work so hard for something everybody can see and then accomplish it.”
In the second round of the South Regional on Sunday, UC Irvine (31-5) will face 12th-seeded Oregon, which beat No. 5 Wisconsin, 72-54.
The Anteaters entered this game having already put together a historic season. They’d set school records for victories and longest winning streak. They’d won their conference tournament with an average margin of victory of 18.3 points.
They’d established the best regular-season road record in the country and placed themselves among the top defensive and rebounding teams nationally.
And, now, this: a second mention on the most famous bracket in all of sports.
“I’m also really excited for the fans of our program who also seem to have endured feeling like little brothers,” Turner said. “You know, we need to stick our chests out a little bit right now, I believe.”
Guard Robert Cartwright, in his first season with Irvine after transferring from Stanford as a graduate student, used the words “relief,” “elation” and “ecstasy” to describe his emotions.
He called what the Anteaters possess “supreme belief,” something that was tested repeatedly by the fourth-seeded Wildcats.
Kansas State (25-9) led by as many as 10 points twice in the first half. Seven of the game’s eight lead changes came over the final 18:22. Irvine ended up leading for barely 13 minutes total.
“You know, we believed that we had a chance to win this game,” Cartwright said. “We prepared like we were going to have a chance to win this game and to win. And we made the plays necessary.”
The Anteaters took the lead for good on the second of back-to-back 3-pointers by junior guard Evan Leonard with 8:28 remaining.
They extended the lead to 59-51 as part of a 12-0 run that swung the game and had the Irvine section inside SAP Center — seated across the court from the team’s bench — screaming.
“I was trying to do my job,” Leonard said of his consecutive 3-pointers. “That basket got a little bigger for me after I made that first one. So I wanted to get one up, and good thing it went in.”
Kansas State twice closed to within two — 63-61 and 66-64 — in the final 3:15. But Hazzard made his emphatic 3-pointer and Leonard made four free throws in a row to finish it.
Immediately before drilling his shot, Hazzard had misfired from a similar distance. When he took the next pass from Cartwright, however, he didn’t hesitate lofting another attempt.
“When you’re a shooter and just a basketball player in general, you kind of have to have a short memory,” he said. “And I think I have that. … I just play with a lot of passion and a lot of joy. The stage doesn’t get much bigger than this.”
Another dramatic 3-pointer by Hazzard — barely beating the halftime buzzer — knotted the score 30-30. As the ball settled into the net, Hazzard bolted the length of the court and disappeared toward the Irvine locker room.
The move was the basketball equivalent of dropping the mic and signaled that the Anteaters had every intention of making things difficult for the Wildcats in the second half.
Kansas State, which missed 12 straight field-goal attempts during one stretch, shot only 37 percent from the floor. The Wildcats played without two-time Big 12 first-team forward Dean Wade, who was out with a foot injury. Their leading scorer, Barry Brown Jr., had first-half foul trouble and made two of nine shots.
Hazzard and Leonard both finished with 19 points. Elston Jones came off the Irvine bench to add 11 points and five rebounds. Cartwright had 10 points.
And now, with more history secured, the Anteaters have a shot to advance to the Sweet 16 against an Oregon team seeded just one spot ahead of them, an Oregon team that has lost 12 times but also won nine in a row.
“We want to keep getting better,” Turner said. “We have visions of potentially growing into something greater. You know, every player dreams of that. Every program dreams of that. This was a big step toward that.”
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