— The Gauchos again were ants against the Anteaters.

UC Irvine upset UCSB in the Big West basketball tournament for the second straight year, frustrating the Gauchos by a 55-50 score in the men’s semifinals Friday night.

The Gauchos, the top-seeded team in the conference, head home with a 23-8 record and expect a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Irvine’s Anteaters (18-15), seeded fifth, will play Saturday night for a berth in the NCAA men’s tournament.

The NIT opportunity, which will be announced Sunday night, was small consolation to the Gauchos after their most disappointing performance of the year. Stanford was the only other team to shut down their offense so completely (by a 67-48 score last November).

“They’re devastated,” Coach Bob Williams said. “In 33 years, I’ve never been more heartfelt for a group of kids. I’m worried about getting their heads back up.”

The Anteaters led from wire to wire. Trailing 53-50, the Gauchos had a chance to tie in the final seconds when Alex Harris drew contact while attempting a 3-point shot, but no foul was called.

Williams did not dispute the officials’ decision. “(Harris) jumped into the defender,” Williams said. “Al’s doing whatever he can to get to the line.”

Irvine’s Patrick Sanders made two free throws with three seconds remaining to put the game out of UCSB’s reach.

Harris, the co-player of the year in the conference, led UCSB with 17 points, but he made only three of 13 shots from the floor. As a team, the Gauchos shot 32 percent, and from the free-throw line, they were just 16-for-29 (55 percent).

“That’s shocking to us,” Williams said. “For a good portion of the year, we were one of the top free-throw-shooting teams in the country.” UCSB came into the tournament with a 76-percent average from the line.

“The lid was on the basket for the majority of the game for us,” Williams said. “We played tight and nervous.”

Williams gave credit to the Anteaters, who had to start Wednesday in the opening round of the tournament and win three straight games to reach the final. It was their fourth consecutive victory over UCSB going back to the 2007 tournament.

“They obviously have our number a little bit – or a lot,” Williams said.

The Gauchos played well defensively, forcing 23 turnovers by Irvine. They came up with 14 steals, six by junior guard D.J. Posley. But they suffered a blow when Chris Devine, their go-to player in the paint with 11 rebounds, fouled out with over six minutes remaining.

A key player for UCI was Patrick Rembert, a walk-on freshman guard. He made five of six free throws in the final 1:04 to help hold off the Gauchos. Rembert finished with 12 points.


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