Throughout most of UCSB’s basketball season, the turnout of students at the Thunderdome was far below what one might expect for a team that was contending for a league championship with one of the nation’s most productive players. But at the Gauchos’ home finale last Thursday night, there was one student too many.
He was the evidently inebriated spectator, wearing a “Class of ’14” T-shirt, who achieved his 15 seconds of shame by running out of the stands and onto the floor. He confronted Gib Arnold, the Hawai‘i head coach, who was engaged in an altercation with the referees. The intruder was pushed away by a Hawai‘i player. He backpedalled while making bellicose gestures and then retreated to the stands, where he was collared by UCSB athletic official Bob Brontsema and turned over to the campus police.
Because the game was being televised by ESPNU, the bizarre spectacle was repeatedly shown on the network’s programs during the next 24 hours. SportsCenter had it, of course. The pundits of Around the Horn commented on it. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon weighed in on Pardon the Interruption. On his talk radio show, UCSB alum Jim Rome gravely testified that he was embarrassed by the incident.
There was an apparent lack of security — how did the miscreant manage to return to his seat before Brontsema caught up with him? — but some commentators overstated the threat level of his incursion. He was in greater danger to himself than any of the coaches, players, or officials on the floor. A Bobby Knight or a Neil McCarthy — the combative New Mexico State coach, a former boxing champion, who once had to be restrained from attacking a fan at UCSB — might have rendered him unconscious. He was described by such terms as “idiot” and “moron.” Suffice it to say his “fan IQ” was below the usual level of suspended intelligence one associates with raving students in college basketball arenas.
Among the students who play the game for UCSB, there is a high degree of basketball intelligence. Take, for instance, Zalmico Harmon, the junior point guard known as “Z.” His assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.69-to-1 is the second-highest in NCAA Division 1. The Gauchos also have the nation’s leading rebounder (11.6 per game) and 12th leading scorer (21.6) in junior center Alan Williams. The Big West bestowed six Player of the Week awards on “Big Al” this season, and on Monday the conference named him the 2014 Player of the Year. Harmon was honored as the Hustle Player of the Year, and senior guard Kyle Boswell, a mechanical engineering major, earned the Sixth Man award.
Those are the UCSB students who deserve to be talked about on ESPN, and maybe that will happen if the Gauchos advance to Saturday’s final of the Big West Tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim. They have put together one of their best seasons under 16th-year head coach Bob Williams. Something was left out of all the reportage of last Thursday’s drama: UCSB defeated Hawai’i, 86-77, for its 20th victory of the season. Two nights later in San Luis Obispo, the Gauchos whipped Cal Poly, 71-55, to cap off the regular season with a record of 21-8.
The Big West Tournament is packed with genuine excitement. Only the champion is expected to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Every game is a desperate fight for survival. There is no such finality in conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-12 that will receive multiple NCAA bids. For them, March Madness does not kick in until next week. In the Big West, it has already arrived.
UCSB’s first game in Anaheim is fraught with peril. The Gauchos, who finished second in the regular season, a game behind UC Irvine, must face seventh-seeded Cal Poly again. The Mustangs are capable of upsetting the Gauchos; they did so in their conference opener back in January. Three UCSB sharpshooters — Boswell, Michael Bryson, and Taran Brown — went 1-for-15 from three-point range. That cannot happen again. The Gauchos’ nerves should settle down if they get past Cal Poly (game time is noon on Thursday, March 13) and move on to Friday night’s semifinals.
Alan Williams said he’s been striving to play every game as if it’s his last. Gaucho teammate John Green serves as his inspiration. Beset by fractures in his feet, Green sat out two full seasons. He worked out diligently, and on February 1, he finally made his debut against UC Davis. Williams recorded the most impressive double-double of his career in the game, but he said that “27 [points] and 20 [rebounds] is nothing tonight. The biggest thing I’ve seen in the last three years is John Green coming back,” said Coach Williams, who got choked up talking about Green’s perseverance on the radio.
In practice 10 days later, Green broke his right wrist, a season-ending injury. He had waited three years to play a total of 13 minutes in two games. He still travels with the Gauchos, a reminder that their time playing a game for their school is something to be cherished.
AGAINST ALL ODDS: The Big West Women’s Tournament used to be UCSB’s playground. The Gauchos have collected 14 championships, most recently in 2012, Carlene Mitchell’s first year as their head coach. That was “The Year of the Improbable,” as they went into the tournament as the sixth-seeded team. Call this “The Year of the Impossible.” For the first time in 24 years, the Gaucho women had a losing record in conference games, a really bad record of 3-13. To make it to the tournament final, they would have to win as many games in three days as they had in the past two months.
Senior guards Nicole Nesbit, Melissa Zornig, and Destini Mason provided some scoring punch, but until Vanderbilt transfer Clair Watkins became eligible in January, the Gauchos did not have a proven post player. Breakdowns at the defensive end plagued them. They were unable to hold a lead late in the second half against their nemesis Cal Poly last Saturday.
Mitchell remains confident in her abilities, while doubts are brewing in the peanut gallery. “A lot of crazy things happen in March Madness,” the coach said this week. “We fight hard every game. It hasn’t clicked for whatever reason. Better late than never.”
PLAYING ON: Super sophomore Amber Melgoza (38 points) and the Santa Barbara High Dons played spectacularly in defeating Lakeside, 67-43, for the CIF Southern Section 3AA girls’ basketball championship last Saturday. The Dons have been seeded No. 1 in the Southern California bracket of the CIF State Division III Championships. They are assured of playing at home if they advance to the quarterfinals (Saturday, March 15) and semifinals (Tuesday, March 18). The Dons boys also were selected to compete in the state tournament after making it to the section semifinals, where they lost to champion Oak Park. Their pathway consists of road games.