SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For more than 50 years, the UC Irvine men's basketball program has existed in relative anonymity.
Without an NIT win to their credit in the past 30 years, let alone one in the NCAA tournament, the Anteaters have never had much of a chance at breaking into the consciousness of Southern California's sporting public. It wasn't necessarily a source of frustration for those around the program because it was a simple, easy-to-understand reality.
It was always going to take a special moment for that to change, if only momentarily. It finally came Friday as the 13th-seeded Anteaters beat fourth-seeded Kansas State 70-64 to secure their first NCAA tournament victory and the first round's most significant upset.
"We could have easily come out here tonight against a Big 12 team like a lot of other 14-seeds did and get blown out," Irvine coach Russell Turner said. "But we seemed to gain momentum with this group off of our confidence, and I think that's because we've earned it. And so that's fun, you know."
Turner pointed out how, a few weeks ago, his team's place in the state's pecking order was starting to change. UCLA and USC were both down this season, and fellow University of California system school California was a disaster. Meanwhile, the Anteaters ran off 13 consecutive wins to close the regular season.
"UC Irvine folks live in the shadows, live like little brothers to UCLA and SC and maybe some others -- Cal, Stanford, San Diego State," 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. But I'm also really excited for the fans of our program who also seem to have endured feeling like little brothers. We need to stick our chests out a little bit right now, I believe."
That Irvine's breakthrough performance came in a season when UCLA didn't qualify for the tournament was especially satisfying for its leading scorer, Max Hazzard. His grandfather, the late Walt Hazzard, was the NCAA tournament MVP in 1964, when he led the Bruins to their first NCAA title and later coached the program after a 10-year NBA career.
Had the Bruins extended a scholarship offer to Max Hazzard, he said he would have accepted it.
"They were recruiting a lot of my teammates in high school, so obviously they would always talk to me," he said. "But I wasn't really sure if they wanted me or if that was just a kind of respect thing for my name."
Against Kansas State, Hazzard proved -- as followers of the program have long understood -- he is more than just a name. The redshirt junior hit five 3-pointers and finished tied with teammate Evan Leonard with a game-high 19 points.
"We've had three goals all year, and that was to win the regular-season championship, the tournament championship and advance in the NCAA tournament," Hazzard said. "And that doesn't just mean one game. We have another game on Sunday, and we're planning to put ourselves in position to win again, and hopefully we can do that and play into next weekend."
"It's definitely exciting, and we're going to keep trying to carry the torch and put on for Cali, but most importantly put on for [UC Irvine]," Hazzard said. "So we're going to just keep doing what we're doing, keep following the game plan."
Hazzard isn't the team's only player who comes from a notable basketball family. Irvine's roster is littered with familiar surnames. Forward JC Butler is the son of former NBA player and UConn great Caron Butler. Guard Spencer Rivers' father is LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers. Forward Collin Welp's father, the late Christian Welp, is Washington's all-time leading scorer.
"With athletics in general -- especially in California, in Southern California -- perceptions matter. Our university is an incredible place where incredible things occur, but not everyone has the impression that we're as good as we are," Turner said. "And so it's special to have the opportunity to show that in basketball because there should be just incredible pride.
"And being from Irvine, from UC Irvine and for the students at UC Irvine and alumni of UC Irvine, if we can help add to that or build onto that, that's pretty good cause I think we got a long way still to go."