Tony Mastres

After a string of early upsets-including the emphatic elimination of UCSB’s men-the Big West Basketball Tournament came down to the best against the best Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center. Long Beach State surged past Cal Poly 94-83 to win the men’s championship and earn a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament. The 49ers will face Tennessee in Columbus, Ohio.

The women’s final was another high-pitched battle between UC Riverside and UCSB. After nine ties and seven lead changes in the second half, Riverside emerged with a 70-67 victory, denying the Gauchos an NCAA bid for the second consecutive year. The Women’s NIT, a consolation tournament for worthy NCAA rejects, selected UCSB (18-13) to play at least one more game. The Gauchos will face the University of San Diego on Thursday night at USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion. The winner will travel to Oregon for the second round. UCR’s Highlanders (21-10) received a No. 14 seed from the NCAA and will open against Pac-10 runner-up Arizona State on Saturday at USC’s new Galen Center.

Like Riverside’s 59-58 victory over the Gaucho women in 2006, this year’s Big West final was in doubt until the final horn sounded. The dramatic finish was set up when UCSB freshman Jordan Franey sank a clutch three-point basket with 44 seconds remaining to produce a 67-67 tie. The ball subsequently wound up in the hands of two women given fortuitous names from their ancestral West African languages: UCR’s Seyram (“Blessed One”) Gbewonyo and UCSB’s Chisaokwu (“God Answers Your Prayers”) Ononiwu.

Gbewonyo (pronounced boo*won*yo) was dribbling toward the baseline as the 30-second-shot clock ran down. She was looking for Kemie Nkele, but the Big West player of the year was well-guarded by UCSB’s Jenna Green. Gbewonyo, a 5ʹ10Ê°sophomore, then pulled up and lofted a 12-foot shot over the straining reach of 5ʹ7Ê° Gaucho defender LaShay Fears. The ball landed softly in the net with 17 seconds remaining and gave the Highlanders a 69-67 lead. Blessed, indeed.

The Gauchos, needing a two to tie or a three-pointer to go ahead, rolled the dice on their next possession. A UCR press forced them to take up precious seconds working the ball into the front court, but Ononiwu was open when it came to her in the right corner. Chisa had already made four three-point baskets in six attempts, and she said this shot felt good when it left her hand with about seven seconds to play. “Every shot they took, I was thinking, ‘Please, God, don’t let it go in,'” Riverside coach John Margaritis said. “They were quality shots.”

This time, his prayer was answered. Ononiwu’s attempt hit the front rim and caromed off the backboard to UCR’s Nkele, who was fouled and made the free throw for the three-point margin. After her second free throw missed, UCSB had a slim chance for a miracle, but Fears’ 50-footer was not close as the buzzer rang.

Gbewonyo scored 18 of her game-high 23 points in the second half. She and Fears, also a sophomore, had been teammates at Sylmar High. Although Fears had performed admirably-her driving layup gave the Gauchos their last lead of the game at 63-62-the defeat drove her to tears. UCSB coach Mark French spoke softly to her during the trophy presentation. “I said, ‘Hey, you know, I’m the one who makes the decisions about how we’re going to defend them,'” French said. “I wanted Jenna to pressure Nkele big-time and make Riverside’s guards shoot from outside or shoot pull-up jump shots.”

Nkele was deservedly named most valuable player of the tournament. The 6ʹ1ʰ Riverside junior had 18 points, four assists, and nine rebounds in the championship game. If the Gauchos had won, MVP honors would have gone to Green, the 6ʹ4ʰ UCSB junior who had 21 points and seven rebounds against Riverside, a day after scoring 27 points in the semifinals. She made 17 of 23 shots in the tournament. She also controlled Nkele at the defensive end; the Riverside star did most of her scoring in short spurts when Green was resting on the bench.

Two other eye-catching players were UCSB junior Jessica Wilson, who pushed the tempo to rare extremes but unfortunately had one of those days her shots would not fall; and Riverside sophomore Chanel Foster, another speedster whose brother DeShaun is a running back for the Carolina Panthers.

Don’t be surprised if the same two Big West women’s heavyweights are slugging it out again next year, like Ali-Frazier III. Neither team has a senior on its roster, and UCSB should be receiving reinforcements from the red-shirt and recruiting ranks. The Gauchos will be mulling over their five consecutive losses to the Highlanders. “It’s just something that’s in the back of your head the whole year,” Green said. “During spring workouts, during summer workouts, during practice, I mean, they have what we want.”

The third time was devoid of charm for UCSB’s men. They played UC Irvine, a team they had already beaten twice, at the most dangerous time for higher-seeded teams in the Big West Tournament-the first time they take the floor against a team that had to win the previous day to get there. UCI had come from 18 points down to eke out a 53-52 win over Riverside, and the Anteaters carried their momentum to a 70-52 victory over the Gauchos. It was a sleep-inducing game after the preceding quarterfinal, a pulsating 100-92 double-overtime victory by Cal State Fullerton over Pacific.

It was a disappointing finale for UCSB seniors Cecil Brown and Glenn Turner. The only Gaucho to score in double figures was junior Alex Harris. He tallied 22 points and finished the season with an average of 21.1, the third highest in school history. UCSB’s 18-11 record was its best in five years.

“We just came out flat,” Brown said. “We had our worst game of the year at the worst time.”

How bad a night was it for the Gauchos? At halftime, a UCSB fan named Glenn was pulled out of the stands to participate in a contest against a UCI representative named Shaun. Whoever scored the most points shooting a miniature basketball for 45 seconds would win a $100 gift certificate. Glenn scored seven points. Shaun scored 37. “We’re not sober!” chanted the UCSB fans in Glenn’s defense. Autumn Nichols, a former UCSB player, was a determined participant in the next day’s shootout at halftime of the women’s semifinal. Nichols won by a 27-12 score over her Cal State Fullerton counterpart.

On the scoreboard of that UCSB-Fullerton women’s semi, Fullerton took a 28-22 lead over UCSB into the second half and still clung to a 49-47 lead with six minutes remaining in the game. But the Gaucho women went on an 8-0 run, capped by Fears’ long three-pointer, to secure a 57-52 victory and earn their shot at Riverside. Now it’s on to the NIT, where the Gaucho women will keep their post-season hopes afloat.


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