“I know he is up there smiling down on me,” said Hazzard, who hit the game’s crucial shot with 1:26 remaining and finished with 19 points as UC Irvine earned the first NCAA tournament victory in program history. For Hazzard and a trio of other UC Irvine teammates with NBA ties, it was a chance at the kind of glory that their fathers and grandfathers had experienced during their playing careers.
The Anteaters, who will meet 12th-seeded Oregon on Sunday, overcame an early 10-point deficit and became just the third team all season to score 70 points against the vaunted defense of the Wildcats. UC Irvine couldn’t have done it without its defensive prowess — Kansas State shot 37 percent from the field and made just 8-for-27 from three-point range — or the perimeter shooting of Evan Leonard (19 points), or the interior play of Elston Jones (11 points, five rebounds).
But UC Irvine also needed all four of its players with NBA bloodlines to come through on this historic day, and with their families in the stands, they did. There was of course Hazzard, who has been the team’s star all season and hit five three-pointers Friday. But there was also Collin Welp, whose late father, Christian Welp, starred at the University of Washington and played three seasons in the NBA; his son came off the bench and played well down the stretch Friday.
There was Spencer Rivers, the son of Los Angeles Coach Doc Rivers, chipping in important minutes in the first half as UC Irvine rallied from a 28-18 deficit. And there was freshman JC Butler, whose father, Caron, played 13 seasons in the NBA, making his first NCAA tournament appearance and helping with pivotal defensive adjustments to slow Kansas State throughout the afternoon. His father and mother were in the crowd, and JC Butler couldn’t wait afterward to see them.
“My mom came from Wisconsin and he came up from Southern California, so it was good to have both of them here,” Butler said.
Kansas State entered the tournament as the 15th overall seed, a threat to make a deep run largely because of its consistency on the defensive end. The Wildcats had held opponents to an average of 59.4 points per game this year, third best in the country. Kansas State limited 18 of 33 teams (including nine Big 12 opponents) to 60 points or fewer.
But UC Irvine also made the short trip here as one of the top defensive teams in the country — its 38 percent field goal percentage defense ranked fifth nationally — and its 1,411 total rebounds were the most in Division I.
The Anteaters made it clear early they would not be intimidated by the length and athleticism of Kansas State; even after falling into a 28-18 hole with 6:18 remaining in the first half, they tightened the screws and didn’t allow a field goal for the rest of the half. That helped ignite the Anteaters’ offense as UC Irvine made a 12-2 run, capped by a pullup three-pointer by Hazzard to tie the score at 30 as the halftime buzzer sounded. Hazzard ran the length of the floor as his teammates giggled and chased him into the locker room, and UC Irvine had the look of a team that believed it could pull off the upset.
Hazzard hit another crucial three-pointer with 10:23 left to pull the Anteaters within two, and Leonard followed with triples on consecutive possessions. Guard Robert Cartwright added another three-pointer to make it 56-51 with 7:31 left. About three minutes later, Welp made perhaps the most important shot of his career, a hook in the lane that gave his team an eight-point lead. Like Hazzard, he couldn’t help think about his family at that point. His father died in 2015 of apparent heart failure.
“He definitely crossed parts of my mind a few times. I wish that he was here,” said Welp, who finished with eight points. “But I hope he’s proud of me.”
Hazzard could relate. He had a large contingent of family in the stands on Friday, including his grandmother, and he struck a pose and stared out into the stands where they were sitting after hitting his crucial three-pointer with 1:29 left to give UC Irvine a 66-61 lead.
“It means the world to me,” Hazzard said. “To put smiles on, not just my family’s faces, but my grandfather’s, too, it’s something I won’t forget.”
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