UCI Men's Basketball Team
UCI Men's Basketball Team

In a back-and-forth, tightly fought game that saw multiple ties and lead changes, the Louisville Cardinals eked out a 57-55 win over UC Irvine Friday, March 20, in the first game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Fans packing the watch parties at UCI’s Newkirk Alumni Center, Anthill Pub and venues across the country were left heartbroken, but proud.

After a moment of uncertain silence at the Newkirk Center came the rising chant: “Thank you ‘Eaters …. Thank you ‘Eaters.”

“It was a good basketball team we were up against,” head coach Russ Turner said. “It’s 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. It’s tough to lose but there’s an incredible, positive feeling in [our] locker room because of the positive growth for the program and in each of these young men.”

The team  knew it was the underdog – a beloved underdog, to be sure – but facing an uphill climb, all the same.

Riding on the lovability of the Anteater mascot and the character of team, the UCI men’s basketball team enjoyed nationwide fan support Friday in its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.

“Why should you care about UC Irvine? Because 7’6” Mamadou Ndiaye is one of the coolest sights you’ll see this March,” tweeted CBS sports.

And those picking their brackets on the basis of mascot appeal clearly had UCI as the Cinderella-team to beat.

But it wasn’t quite enough to overcome the relentless defense of the Louisville Cardinals.

UCI had a chance to tie the game against fourth-seeded Louisville with eight seconds remaining, but never had the opportunity to get the shot off as a turnover at half-court ended the ‘Eaters’ season. in a 57-55 loss to the Cardinals Friday afternoon at Seattle’s Key Arena.

Luke Nelson‘s driving layup from the top of the key gave UCI the 55-53 lead with one minute remaining but Wayne Blackshear, who led the Cardinals with 19 points, answered with a tough shot over Mamadou Ndiaye with 43 seconds left to tie the game. Nelson’s next attempt from above the arc missed the mark and Quentin Snider drew the foul as both UCI and Louisville gave chase on the long rebound. Snider sank both free throws to give Louisville the lead for good.

Will Davis II and Ndiaye combined for 26 points and 14 rebounds to lead the ‘Eaters, who played with poise and out-scored Louisville 34-28 in the paint and edged the Cardinals on the boards, 29-25.

UCI kept the game close in the first half despite making three straight bad passes in the final three minutes, and slashed into a seven-point Louisville advantage to end the half.  Nelson sparked the rally with a minute left, connecting from three and after Davis rebounded a miss by Chinanu Onuaku, the senior delivered on both ends of the court, tipping in a Nelson miss with two seconds left to lead UCI into the locker room trailing by two at 30-28.

In the second half, Louisville edged out to take a five-point lead at 44-39 as Blackshear hit a three-point shot but Aaron Wright calmly hit a pair of free throws (44-41), the first for UCI in the game at 11:10. Ndiaye then went on a run, scoring six straight points, including coming up with an emphatic dunk at 5:58 to bring UCI to within one at 48-47.