UC Irvine got back-to-back 3-pointers from Evan Leonard to spark the deciding run in a 70-64 upset over Kansas State that marked the Anteaters’ first NCAA Tournament victory in school history.
The Friday victory was the 17th consecutive for UC Irvine, which lost 57-55 to Louisville in 2015 in their only NCAA appearance.
Leonard and Max Hazzard each scored 19 points to send UC Irvine (31-5) into the second round of the South Region for a matchup against either Wisconsin or Oregon.
One year after making a run to the Elite Eight, the fourth-seeded Wildcats (25-9) had a short stay in the tournament as they struggled to decipher the Anteaters zone defense and missed star forward Dean Wade, who was sidelined by a foot injury. Kamau Stokes led Kansas State, the co-champions of the Big 12, with 18 points.
Despite that, Kansas State led by four points midway through the second half before the two long shots from Leonard turned the tides with a streak of 12 consecutive points. Robert Cartwright added another 3-pointer and Leonard made three free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer to make it 59-51.
The Wildcats cut the deficit to two points, before Hazzard hit a corner 3 with 1:25 to play to make it 66-61 and then struck a pose to the delight of the Anteaters fans who made the trip up from Orange County.
Cartier Diarra hit a 3 for Kansas State off a tip pass from Xavier Sneed and the Wildcats had a chance to tie or take the lead but Barry Brown Jr. threw a pass away with 38.8 seconds to play.
The Anteaters then sealed the game at the foul line.
UC Irvine: Despite getting blown out early last season at Kansas State, the Anteaters were a confident team coming into this game thanks to 30 wins and the long winning streak. They used two big runs to stay close in the first half and forced the Wildcats into 11 straight misses to end the half. Hazzard’s buzzer-beater tied the game at 30 at the break.
Kansas State: Wade’s injury had a big impact on the Wildcats, but they managed the long tournament run last year with him mostly as a spectator because of an injury. What hurt more was an off-night from leading scorer Brown. He played only 5:45 minutes in the first half after committing two quick fouls and didn’t make his first basket until early in the second half. He finished with five points on 2-for-9 shooting.
Stokes drew fouls on 3-point shots three times in the game for the Wildcats. He drew two in the first half against Eyassu Worku, drawing the ire of Anteaters coach Russell Turner. Stokes then drew another in the second half against Robert Cartwright that had Turner complaining to the official instead. Stokes made seven of the nine free throws on those fouls.
Stokes then committed a foul on a UC Irvine 3-pointer, sending Leonard to the line for three shots late in the first half.
UC Irvine advances to play the winner of the game between Oregon and Wisconsin.