ANAHEIM – UCSB finally broke the spell that had made its appearance in the Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament a version of the movie “Groundhog Day” – the same frustrating result, over and over again.
For only the second time in the 35-year history of the tournament, the Gauchos have made it to the championship game. They held off a scrappy UC Davis team, 76-62, in Friday night’s semifinals.
Senior guard James Powell led the Gauchos with a season-high 22 points, 16 of them in the second half when the Aggies threatened to wipe out UCSB’s 20-point halftime lead. The Gauchos led just 48-43 when Powell went on a 10-point spree in a little over two minutes, widening the gap to 58-45 with four minutes remaining.
The top-seeded Gauchos (19-9) will face Long Beach State for the title at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
“For James and me, getting back to Saturday is very special,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said. The only other time the Gauchos played in the final was in 2002. They defeated Utah State, 60-56, and earned Santa Barbara’s third bid to the NCAA men’s tournament, where they lost an 86-81 thriller to Arizona in the first round.
Twice since then, the Gauchos came into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed and were knocked off in the semifinals. They were No. 1 again this time, and they played like it in the first half. Their defense swarmed on the Aggies, holding them to 18% shooting, and when James Nunnally sank a long three-pointer as the halftime buzzer sounded, the score was 31-11.
Nunnally finished with 17 points, a game-high nine rebounds and five assists, prompting Powell to bestow his title of “Big Game James” on the sophomore guard. “He’s going to be a triple-double waiting to happen,” Powell said.
Williams said the “Hungarian Hammer,” Greg Somogyi, was the key figure in the first half. The 7’3” sophomore came into the game when starting center Jaime Serna incurred two early fouls. Somogyi had six rebounds and blocked two shots, taking away Davis’s inside game. “He allowed us to get aggressive on the perimeter,” Williams said.
In the second half, the Aggies were the aggressors. Dominic Calegari scored 17 of his 18 points after halftime. Joe Harden was their high scorer with 20.
UCSB’s powerful sophomore guard Orlando Johnson, the Big West Player of the Year, had a relatively quiet game with 14 points.
“We got some rust off,” Williams said. “We have to play better tomorrow.”
Long Beach State, the third-seeded team, knocked off No. 2 seed Pacific, 68-61, in the other semifinal. The Gauchos lost by 20 points at Long Beach early in the season, then came back to beat the 49ers 64-62 at the Thunderdome a month ago.