It was a win-win day for UCSB at the Big West Basketball Tournament. In semifinal games Saturday, the Gaucho women scorched the nets at the Honda Center in Anaheim for an 84-66 victory over Pacific, and the Gaucho men pulled away late in the second half to defeat Cal Poly, 64-52.
Long Beach State will be Santa Barbara’s opponent in both of Saturday’s championship games — the women squaring off at 2 p.m. (televised on Fox Sports Prime) and the men at 7 p.m. (ESPN2).
The prize for the winners will be berths in their respective NCAA tournaments. The Gaucho men are aiming for their third straight trip to the Big Dance at the expense of Long Beach. “Everybody has been looking forward to this matchup,” said Orlando Johnson, who led UCSB with 20 points against Cal Poly. “We’re going to go out there tomorrow and let it all hang.”
Long Beach coach Dan Monson said the 49ers hope to “exorcise that demon” this time. The 49ers dominated UCSB in their two regular season games — but they did so last year as well, only to come up short in Anaheim.
UCSB coach Bob Williams noted that the same core group of players has represented both teams for three years. Now they are seniors, ready to go at it one last time. Long Beach guard Casper Ware is the two-time conference player of the year. Johnson has won the last two tournament MVP awards.
Long Beach’s Larry Anderson, the defensive player of the year, sprained his knee a week ago and missed the first two tournament games. But he could play Saturday and be an inspiration like Willis Reed of the Knicks against the Lakers in the 1970 NBA Finals. “I expect to see Larry out there,” Williams said.
Williams said the grind-it-out game against Cal Poly served as good preparation for the Gauchos. “We had grit, we fought, we stayed calm, we had composure,” the UCSB coach said. Johnson missed 11 of his 16 shots, but he hit timely ones, including a three-pointer from the top of the key that gave the Gauchos a 58-49 lead with 1:30 remaining. Fellow seniors James Nunnally (13) and Jaime Serna (10) also scored in double figures.
UCSB’s women, meanwhile, put on a dazzling display of shot-making for a team that had been averaging 52 points a game. They surpassed their previous high score of 67 (in regulation time) by 17 points. Sophomore guards Melissa Zornig (23 points) and Nicole Nesbit (20) both scored career highs. They combined to make 18 of 27 shots (67 percent). Senior guard Emilie Johnson also scored 20, making a bunch of free throws when Pacific started fouling toward the end of the game.
It was a payback game for the Gaucho women, who had suffered their worst loss of the season (60-40) at Pacific on March 1. They had lost three straight times to the Tigers, including a hugely disappointing defeat in the opening round of last year’s Big West Tournament. “We came in with a chip on our shoulder knowing how horrible it felt last year,” Nesbit said.
Long Beach upset Cal Poly 51-48 in the other women’s semifinal, setting up an unexpected final between the seventh-seeded 49ers and sixth-seeded Gauchos. But UCSB’s first year coach Carline Mitchell was not surprised. “We knew we would mesh and peak when it counted,” she said.
Pacific coach Lynne Roberts showered the Gauchos with praise. “They were really good,” she said. “It was just a great, great game by them.”