The day after the UCI men’s basketball team won the Big West Tournament championship, some 300 faithful crowded into a blue- and gold-balloon-draped Newkirk Alumni Center to see who the Anteaters would play in their first-round game of the NCAA Tournament.
UCI punched its ticket into the 68-team field with a 92-64 triumph over Cal State Fullerton in the Big West title game. It was a record win: the Anteaters’ 30th of the season – and 16th in a row – and the 28-point margin of victory was the largest in Big West Tournament history.
Alumni, students and other supporters noshed on pizza and chatted excitedly before the 3 p.m. Selection Sunday TV show, during which the tournament brackets would be announced.
Marc and Kathy Gasca brought their young sons Diego and Cruz to the event. Decked out in their finest blue-and-gold wear, the Irvine residents are season ticket holders.
“We really love it,” said Marc Gasca, a 2000 UCI graduate in biological sciences. “It’s a great family atmosphere, especially with this team. It’s been so much fun.”
NCAA Tournament experts known as “bracketologists” had been predicting that the Anteaters would receive a No. 12 or 13 seed and play their first-round game in San Jose.
“If so, we’re there,” said Kathy Gasca. “It’s been wonderful to see this team come together this year and finish it out.”
David Simmons ’77 has been a season ticket holder for the better part of 42 years. “Even when I lived in London, I kept my tickets,” he said. “There’s been a lot of great memories.”
Simmons goes to Anteater games with his friend Greg Mickelson ’84, and the two sat back at the Newkirk Center savoring this year’s squad like a fine wine. “We’ve been discussing whether this is the best team in UCI history,” Simmons said. “I think this one is up there. We had some NBA-caliber players in the ’80s, but none of them made the NCAA Tournament. This one is the deepest and best coached.”
Mickelson laughed. He was much more confident. “This is the best team in UCI history,” he said.
As the start of the Sunday Selection show neared, cheerleaders cheered and the band played; the conquering Anteater players settled into their front-row seats. At the edge of the crowded conference room, Eladio Acuna ’84, ’86 stood and smiled. A sergeant with the UCI Police Department, he’s been watching Anteater basketball for 37 years. Like the other officers at the event, he was there on a volunteer basis.
“I’m very proud of the guys,” he said. “There’s no doubt we belong in the tournament.”
Michael Wilder ’13, director of administration for UCI men’s basketball, shares an even closer bond with the program. He played on the team, leading the 2013 squad to the Big West Tournament championship game.
“This is a special feeling for me,” Wilder said. “This team is so focused and resilient, and I’m so proud to see what they’ve achieved.”
The tournament selection show was broadcast on four large screens. All watched intently as the south region slots were announced, with the crowd erupting into sustained cheers as it became official: UCI was seeded 13th and would play Friday against Kansas State – in San Jose. The prognostications were correct.
Soon after, the TVs were turned down as coach Russell Turner took to a microphone. “We’re going to give it all we got,” he said in a voice hoarse from a busy weekend. “You can drive to San Jose, or you can fly to San Jose. Why don’t y’all come join us?”
More cheers burst forth. But in the back of the room, Mickelson was already one step ahead of everyone else: “I’ve already booked my flights.”