ANAHEIM – To become participants in the NCAA’s version of “Dancing with the Stars,” UCSB had to take a toughness test. The Gauchos passed it with flying colors Saturday night. They withstood some potentially devastating moments in the second half of the Big West Tournament championship game and prevailed over Long Beach State, 69-64.
The Gauchos (20-9) will be watching the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday (3 p.m., CBS) to find out where and whom they will play in the in one of America’s premier sporting events, the 65-team Division I men’s tournament.
UCSB will be making its fourth appearance in the NCAAs. The last was eight years ago. Needless to say, it will be a new experience for all the players.
“It’s unbelievable,” said senior guard James Powell, who was too choked up to speak for several minutes when asked what it meant to him. When he found his voice again, Powell spoke of former teammates Alex Harris, Cecil Brown, Chris Devine, Ivan Elliott and Jesse Byrd – players on some of UCSB’s finest teams who fell short in the conference tournament. “They never got a chance,” Powell said. “I wish they could experience it.”
UCSB coach Bob Williams applauded Powell’s emotion. “I love it that he’s got tears,” Williams said. “I love the fact that this win has touched him.”
Powell, along with irrepressible sophomores Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally and Jaime Serna, made big plays down the stretch for the Gauchos.
After Long Beach took a 53-52 lead with five minutes remaining, Johnson scored four straight points on a pair of free throws and a flying fast-break layup off an assist from Nunnally. Long Beach trimmed UCSB’s lead to a mere point on four occasions, but each time the Gauchos responded with free throws – Johnson and Powell both went four-for-four down the stretch – and a big three-point basket by Nunnally. Serna drew a charging foul with 10 seconds remaining and the Gauchos leading 65-62, denying the 49ers their last chance to close the gap.
Johnson scored 20 points and added the tournament Most Valuable Player award to his Big West Player of the Year honor. He made 11 of 12 free throws, the result of working for hours on his form with assistant coach Brad Holland. “Anybody who watched him in December would say that (11-for-12) was highly unlikely,” Williams said.
Powell, on the other hand, did what was likely. He’s hit 91 percent of his free throws this season and could not recall missing one with a game on the line. “You know why he’s good?” Williams said. “He didn’t feel anything. Great pressure players don’t feel pressure.”
Nunnally scored 19 points and made the all-tournament team. Serna finished with 11 points, including an assertive tomahawk dunk early in the second half, and six rebounds.
Long Beach State (17-16) was led by point guard Casper Ware, who had 19 points and five steals. The 5’10” sophomore was Casper the Unfriendly Ghost to the Gauchos. They lost the ball to him three straight times midway through the second half. He scored seven points at the end of a 10-0 run that turned a 47-37 UCSB lead into a 47-47 brand-new ball game.
But the Gauchos pulled themselves back together and kept the tide from rising further against them. They were not the same team that collapsed to a 67-47 defeat at Long Beach in January.
“From the first time they played us until now, they’ve acquired some toughness,” 49ers coach Dan Monson said. “You need toughness in the NCAA.” That statement from Monson, who formerly coached a Gonzaga team deep into the NCAA tournament, is something the Gauchos can take to heart.
UC Riverside will represent the Big West in the NCAA women’s tournament after beating top-seeded UC Davis 71-67 in the afternoon game at the Anaheim Convention Center. UCSB junior Mekia Valentine made the all-tournament team.
Next year, the Big West Tournament will move a couple miles to the Anaheim’s Honda Center and return to a traditional format where eight teams pair off in quarterfinals on the first day. The men’s quarterfinal round will be played at the tournament site, and the women’s will be played at the home arenas of the top four teams before they move on to Anaheim.