It was a tremendous, historic accomplishment, but don’t say it was unbelievable.
An invitation to the Big Dance has been a long time coming, ever since Russell Turner took over the UC Irvine basketball team five seasons ago. Before that, Scott Brooks had probably been the only Anteater you’d ever heard of. But after Friday’s NCAA Tournament game in Seattle, you’ve heard of Mamadou Ndiaye, maybe even Luke Nelson, Will Davis II and Alex Young.
You could use the word heartbreaking, because the way that game ended is something many of those players will agonize over through next season. And for the seniors like Davis and Travis Souza, maybe even for years.
"It’s tough to lose, but there’s an incredible positive feeling in that locker room because of the growth in our program and each of these young men," Turner said. "It’s hard to face guys who have given everything they have got and come up short. But aside from winning that game, that’s about as good an outcome as you could have. To lay it all on the line and be a basket short, that’s basketball."
The Anteaters might not have ever been to the NCAA Tournament prior to Friday, but they sure acted like they had. As the No. 13 seed playing against No. 4 Louisville — a team that has been there several times and even won it all as recently as two years ago — they came out as relaxed as they would for any game at the Bren.
Against the vaunted, they were undaunted.
"I thought in many ways in this game we were their equal," head coach Russell Turner said. "Hard to say we were better than they were because of the way the game ended up, but we were a play away from winning that game."
Ndiaye became a breakout star, dunking over guys who would like to think that they were bigger than him and showcasing an exceptional drop step move that instantly produced a viral vine. His game was so disrespected by the Cardinals bigs and defending him didn’t factor much into the Louisville game plan at all — coach Rick Pitino’s plan was to defend the three.
"We see that his condition is not nowhere near where ours is, so we’re going to make him run a lot," Louisville’s Montrezl Harrel said the day before. "We’re a pressing team. We’re going to make sure that he plays with the way we get up and down the floor."
"I don’t think that we’re too concerned about that because he doesn’t play a lot of minutes," Pitino said. "What we hope to do with Irvine more than anything else is defend the three."
Ndiaye, the Senegal national who prepped in Huntington Beach, scored 12 points, grabbed five boards and a lot of hearts.
"I thought Mamadou was terrific, like he usually is," Turner said. "What we tried to do was get him the ball as close to the rim as possible, and a couple of the plays at the end we were able to do that."
The turnovers, 14 of them, were costly. The Cards executed their press and sufficiently disrupted UCI’s ball handling. But these were obstacles that the Anteaters thought they could overcome and ones the fans wanted to see them overcome.
At a bar only a stone’s throw away from the Honda Center, where the ‘Eaters were victorious only five short days ago, a group of locals from a nearby office came in to support a team that doesn’t typically get a lot of support in the area. Some alums sat at one end of the bar, taking an extra long lunch break to watch something they never got to watch in college.
And the ‘Eaters had the Key Arena crowd behind them the whole time as well. "Let’s go ‘Eaters" and "zot" could be heard throughout the broadcast. It was as if their following increased in a matter of minutes.
"During points of the game when we were going back and forth with Louisville, whenever we got a basket or a good defensive play, we could hear the crowd just erupt," Davis said. "It’s always good just to have the crowd behind us, especially in our first NCAA Tournament game."
It was really only a matter of time before we started chanting "zot" together in March. This performance was a long time coming: It started when Turner left the Warriors five years ago to bring tradition to a place that didn’t have much before. It might have ended in heartbreak on Friday afternoon, but in reality, it’s far from over for the burgeoning mid-major power.
"We got a lot of guys who are going to play more in our program, and that’s how you continue to get better, to go through games and moments like this," Turner said. "It’s hard not to look around that locker room and feel incredible pride."