Despite double-figure outings from Robert Cartwright, Evan Leonard and Tommy Rutherford in a furious second-half comeback, the 13-seed UC Irvine Anteaters were shut out of their first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance in a 73-54 loss to Oregon on Sunday night.
UC Irvine fell behind early and had to play catch-up — something the 31-win team rarely had to do this season. An early five-minute drought led to a 10-0 Oregon run that put the slow-paced Anteaters behind the 8-ball for the majority of the game.
Whenever the Anteaters needed a spark, they got it from Evan Leonard or Tommy Rutherford — the latter of whom scored 10 points after being shut out of UC Irvine’s second-round win over Kansas State.
Unfortunately for the Anteaters, the shooting and defense from former Nevada commit Ehab Amin was too much to handle. The onetime Texas A&M-Corpus Christi star came off the bench, grabbed several key offensive rebounds against UC Irvine’s bigs and hit several threes to help the Ducks fend off the Anteaters in the first half. Couple his play with Oregon’s pressure defense, which baited UCI into eight first-half turnovers and 9-27 first half shooting, and the clock struck midnight on the tournament’s lowest-remaining seed before the halftime.
If there was a lone bright spot for the Anteaters on both ends of the floor, it was senior big man Jonathan Galloway. The three-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year more than held his own against a Power-5 frontcourt. He led the way with five points, seven rebounds and one thundering block in the first half, but was shut down in the second half. In his last game as an Anteater, Galloway finished a point shy of a double-double with 9 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Anteaters, who had a nation-leading 9-3 record while trailing at halftime, battled back. The Anteaters scored six points in under three minutes to pull within four points. Although both teams looked like they were actively trying to lose — those three turnovers in 18 seconds on bad inbounds passes come to mind — the Anteaters stormed back to tie it with a 14-0 run.
Meanwhile, Oregon didn’t score until — who else — Amin hit a three at the 12:28 mark. He drew a questionable offensive foul call on the very next play, and the Ducks were off and running again. Crucial turnovers tanked UC Irvine’s momentum; Oregon’s Peyton Pritchard and Kenny Wooten took advantage of it. Pritchard scored 10 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, while Wooten’s near-triple-double of 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks was the difference-maker.
After tying the game at 35-all, UC Irvine was outscored 38-19 to close the game.
UC Irvine’s season comes to a close at a program-best 31-6 record and its first-ever NCAA Tournament win. With six of its 10-man rotation set to return next season, head coach Russell Turner will have plenty of incentives to spurn bigger offers at PAC-12 jobs to stay in Irvine.