IRVINE, Calif. — The most memorable aspect of Collin Welp’s latest game might not have been the career-best 23 points he scored off the bench Saturday night for UC Irvine in the Big West Conference’s tournament championship.
Rather, it might have been the reaction his performance evoked.
“M-V-P, M-V-P,” fans shouted after the redshirt freshman — who has yet to make a collegiate start — deftly made a three-point basket from the top of the lane with 11 minutes to play during the Anteaters’ 92-64 rout of Cal State Fullerton. Roughly 30 seconds later, while returning to the bench after committing his second foul, the former Seattle Prep standout received a standing ovation.
“I heard it, obviously,” Welp said. “I try to block it out because there was still tons of time on the clock. I focus, train and practice to be able to play well in big games. My teammates had confidence in me to score, so I just had to step up.”
Welp’s performance enabled him to make the Big West’s all-tournament team — and his 8 points off the bench helped lift his 13th-seeded Anteaters to a stunning upset victory over fourth-seeded Kansas Sate on Friday in San Jose. They’ll play the winner between No. 12 Oregon and No. 5 Wisconsin.
“It was a special performance for Collin,” Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “To have that performance as a freshman is really a difficult thing to have happen. But as surprised as many who watched it may be, I don’t think any of us in the locker room were surprised by that. His competitive drive is special, and his instincts for the game are also special.”
Teammate Jonathan Galloway — a member of the All-Big West team and the conference’s three-time defensive player of the year — said: “He’s one of those guys that gets in the gym when he doesn’t have to. He’s one of those guys that’s always willing to learn. He’s a true competitor.”
The instincts come from his late father, Christian, Washington’s all-time leading scorer and the only Husky to amass more than 2,000 career points. A three-time member of the All-Pac-10 team, the elder Welp played in three NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 as a freshman in 1984.
“He taught me everything I know,” said the younger Welp, also a forward. “I’ve heard stories from his old teammates, and I’ve seen old film of his. I just tried to soak it all up. He coached me tons growing up and then as I got older, he just sort of backed off. He just let me become my own player.”
In the process, he modeled his game from the former Husky.
“In some aspects, yes,” the 6-foot-9 Welp said. “Our styles have some similarities. We’re bigs who can stretch out the court because we have good touch from outside the paint. I don’t want to be a one-dimensional player.”
As he was learning the game, Welp learned to resolve the tension involved in being his father’s son.
“Growing up, sometimes, it was tougher because I was always compared to him,” he said. “But as I’ve grown up, I have started to embrace it. I just try to play and carry myself in a way that would make him proud.”
Basketball isn’t all he has to focus on. Welp has a severe stutter. When he speaks, the freshman frequently says “OK” as a reminder to concentrate and not to panic.
“I’ve had it since the third grade,” he said. “It’s been tougher when I was growing up, but I’ve become more comfortable with myself. I have been trying to fight to overcome it.”
When the freshman reaches the basketball floor, a transformation takes place.
“It’s strange because it doesn’t happen on the court at all,” Welp said. “It seems that out on the court, I’m in a comfort zone. So it doesn’t seem to come up as much.”
Welp and the Anteaters will try to keep the magic of this season alive in round two.