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Anteaters Reflect on March Madness Breakthrough

It’s been an absolutely amazing season for the UC Irvine Anteaters, who were the only Southern California-based men’s basketball team to make the 2019 NCAA Tournament, en route to picking up their first March Madness win in school history. While they did not ultimately clinch the title, the lessons and experiences each member gained will be remembered for life.

“I love working with the players and showing the positive impact this team can have on a community,” enthused head coach Russell Turner, who just completed his ninth season at UCI.

“They are competitive, unselfish and are willing to sacrifice. They have learned that playing at a high level of competition is fun and demanding.”

After the UC Irvine men’s basketball team wrapped up its most successful season in program history, the Anteaters are now back at the university. Irvine Weekly caught up with the team as they reflected on their journey.

Photo courtesy of UCI Athletics

Question: What do you love about your team and UC Irvine?

Robert Cartwright (Graduate student, Guard): I loved the resiliency of this team. On multiple occasions in both the regular and post-season, our team fought back from significant deficits in some of our biggest games and found ways to stay together and win. This was a testament to our mental toughness.

Jonathan Galloway (Graduate student, Forward): The competitive energy on the team was contagious. We would grind every day in practice with one another. More importantly, I believe our team played together as a unit. As coach Turner would say, our team “bought in” and that made our relationship special. Whether it was the student-trainers, our strength coach or our managers, everyone played their role.

Tommy Rutherford (Junior, Forward): I love how together our team is because we don’t just see each other as teammates and coaches, but we are family. Our coaches demand heart and success at all levels (basketball, school, and being a young man). UCI is a great community and really houses a variety of students, which makes our campus so accepting of people from all backgrounds.

Collin Welp, (Freshman, Redshirt Forward): I think my favorite part about the team is the connection and camaraderie that we have both on and off the court. We spend a lot of time on the court together, but off the court we hang out together a lot as well. I believe that bond we have has helped us be successful on the court and build relationships off the court.

Photo courtesy of UCI Athletics

Q: How has being on the team changed your life?

Cartwright: I have dreamt of playing in the NCAA tournament since he was a child. The opportunity to live out that dream was the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game of basketball.

Galloway: I’ve been able to make progress as a young man throughout the past five years and I give much of the credit to being a part of this team. Every person on this team has some sort of positive impact on me. Our program has continued to improve the family atmosphere. I will cherish many of the relationships within our team for the rest of my life.

Rutherford: Being on the UCI team has changed my life by helping me shape into the person that I want to be. The demands, but also the support, will better me in the future as I feel that I will be successful in whatever I do since I have the coaches and people in athletics helping me be successful in all aspects of life.

Welp: It has given me a family of teammates that I can count on being my friends for life. I know that they can always count on me for anything they need and vice versa.

Q: What do you like about living in Irvine?

Cartwright: Irvine is a beautiful city with great weather and in close proximity to beautiful beaches. It has also a blessing to be so close to home and my family as well.

Galloway: Over the years, I’ve come to love and appreciate the city of Irvine. It has so many different attractions. It isn’t too far from other popular cities in the area and the beaches are right down the street. And let’s not forget the weather that’s probably the most popular thing that people mention when I tell them where I go to school.  

Rutherford: Irvine is an amazing place to live as it is so similar to my home in San Diego. Irvine has all of things needed for entertainment: beach, movies and great food.

Welp: My favorite part about living in Irvine is the weather. Being from Seattle, where it’s rainy most of the year, the sunshine is always nice.

Photo courtesy of UCI Athletics

Q: How was the experience of being a part of March Madness?

Cartwright: When the buzzer sounded at the end of the Kansas State game, there was such a sense of pride and joy of the history the team had made for UC Irvine. We knew from the outset of the season that we believed we could win both the conference championship and conference tournament, and advance in the NCAA tournament, all of which we accomplished. I have played in many high level games in my basketball career, but the bright lights of March Madness created an intensity that was unlike any other.

Galloway: The experience of being in March Madness was priceless. Especially being on a team that made history in so many different ways. Our team was truly grateful for all of the love and support we received from the beginning to the end of the season.

Rutherford: Being a part of March Madness was an experience I will never forget and has made me appreciate all the work and sacrifice that I have given to the game of basketball. My love of the game could not be any higher than it is right now and I appreciate every moment I get to play basketball.

Welp: It was my favorite basketball experience so far in my career, no doubt. Obviously, I grew up watching the tournament every year and filling out brackets, but there is nothing like actually being part of it. From Selection Sunday to being on the court, to playing in front of thousands of people, it really was a great experience to be able to play in the tournament so early in my career. I hope I have the opportunity to go back and do it all over again.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you have dealt with as a player?

Cartwright: I have had to overcome many obstacles during my collegiate career. The most significant likely was when I suffered a severe arm injury that required 3 separate surgeries on my right arm and elbow and cost me my sophomore year at Stanford. However, this one year at UC Irvine is one I will be forever grateful for and always cherish.

Galloway: One of the biggest challenges I faced as a player was being patient and waiting for my time to come. When I first arrived on campus, the idea of redshirting was something I had no intention of doing. I refused the opportunity to redshirt numerous times. As the 2014-15 season approached, I trusted my coaching staff and made the decision to redshirt. I used the opportunity to get better for my first season of play.

However, I expected more success during my freshman year. Coming off the bench and receiving limited minutes was something I did not envision. So, I just kept working on and off the court to put myself in the best position possible. Now looking back on my career at Irvine, I’ve been able to leave my mark on the program just as I planned years ago.

Rutherford: The biggest challenge of being a player is putting the game in perspective. Knowing that when mistakes are made, the next play is there to make up for it. Also, understanding that the practice that is put in will make you improve even if you don’t always see it right away.

Welp: One of the biggest challenges for me coming to college as an athlete was learning all the things that really go into every day. Getting proper treatment in the training room, eating right or getting good rest are all things I knew were important as an athlete, but they are magnified as a collegiate athlete. However, I have learned to manage it over time and my teammates and coaches have been great in helping me as well.