“We’re like the Lakers, baby,” James Nunnally said in describing the sudden resurgence of the UCSB men’s basketball team after several weeks of lackluster results. In three electrifying days at the Honda Center in Anaheim last weekend, the Gauchos went from a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big West to the repeat champions of the conference tournament and attained a coveted perch in March Madness.
(The NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins Thursday, March 17. UCSB will be tipping off against Florida at 3:45 p.m. [Pacific Time]. The game will be televised by TBS.)
A year ago at this time, it would have been reasonable to predict that the Gauchos would make this appearance in the Big Dance. They won the 2010 Big West championship with a young team—all five starters returned this season—and they gained big-time NCAA experience against Ohio State in a 68-51 loss.
But two weeks ago, UCSB coach Bob Williams wondered whether “two people on campus … or two people in Southern California” would have given the Gauchos a chance to go this far. They had been humiliated by Long Beach State, 71-53, a loss that dropped their league record to 7-8. Long Beach coach Dan Monson remarked that the Gauchos “didn’t look like they trusted each other.”
Two days after the 49ers ripped them apart, the Gauchos came together in a players-only meeting. Orlando Johnson said they put the past behind them and focused on the upcoming conference tournament, an opportunity to salvage their season. The coaching staff rode them hard and emphasized defense, which they displayed in their final home game, a 49-43 victory over Cal Poly.
The three days at the Honda Center played like a Western revenge movie—like Nevada Smith, where Steve McQueen tracks down the three villains who murdered his parents. Playing on a floor that covered the ice hockey rink of the Anaheim Ducks, the Gauchos were cold-blooded killers. They destroyed the three teams that had gone 6-0 against them in the regular season: Pacific (79-67), Cal State Northridge (83-63), and Long Beach State (64-56).
As the final seconds of the championship game ticked away, the Gauchos started a big hug fest. If they had any more cohesion, you would have needed a crowbar to separate them.
Johnson was a unanimous choice for the Most Valuable Player award. The 6′5″ junior guard was magnificent. He was the leading scorer in all three games (with 32, 30, and 23 points). He went off against Long Beach midway through the second half, burying a pair of three-pointers with 49er defenders in his face.
“Some people play in big games. Other people win big games,” Williams said. “I told the team before this game that they have arrived.”
Junior forward Jaimé Serna was a force in the paint, making seven of nine shots. In the final minutes, when the 49ers needed the Gauchos to have empty possessions, Nunnally fearlessly put up a shot from behind the backboard that swished through the net; and Jon Pastorek drilled a devastating three-pointer that gave UCSB a nine-point lead. It was a sweet moment for Pastorek, a blue-collar player whose main roles are rebounding and defending. Justin Joyner, the other senior starter, badgered Long Beach’s outstanding guard Casper Ware into one of his poorer games. The 49ers made less than 30 percent of their shots; several of them went astray when Greg Somogyi, the 7′3″ Hungarian Gaucho, was defending the basket.
It was a bitter defeat for the 49ers, who had won 22 games but have to settle for a bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). “The NCAA tournament is the measuring stick,” Monson said. “You have to get there to be the program you want to be.”
UCSB has gotten there five times, three under Williams (2002, 2010, and 2011). The Gauchos also went during Jerry Pimm’s coaching era in 1988 and 1990, when they achieved their only tournament victory over Houston.
Despite their 18-13 record and Big West’s lagging reputation since UNLV departed the conference, the Gauchos could be a dangerous team in Tampa. They won’t be intimidated after having played Ohio State in the Midwest last year. They muffled the voices of several thousand Long Beach fans at the Honda Center.
Past results are not very reassuring to No. 15 seeds. Only four of them have ever won NCAA tournament games—Hampton over Iowa State (2001), Coppin State over South Carolina (1997), Santa Clara over Arizona (1993), and Richmond over Syracuse (1991).
UCSB can take some encouragement from Charles Barkley’s assessment of Florida. He said the Gators do not deserve their No. 2 seed. The Gauchos have a precious chance to pull one of the shocking upsets that give March Madness its mystique as the most exciting team competition in American sports.
UCSB Women’s March Sadness
Nicole Nesbit, her face wrenched in emotional pain, pulled her jersey up over her head to hide her tears. It was a heartbreaking scene in the middle of the Thunderdome floor, and one that UCSB women’s basketball fans were not accustomed to seeing. Just three days after the Gauchos had won their seventh straight game to nab a share of the regular season championship, they lost their Big West Tournament opener to Pacific, 49-45.
Welcome to the flip side of March Madness—the disappointment of being abruptly eliminated from the Big Dance. For the first time since 1995, the Gaucho women failed to reach the conference semifinals. They had been so dominant in the tournament—winning 11 titles in 13 years—that it had come to be known as the “UCSB Invitational.” They had all but forgotten the pain that comes with shattered dreams. They were the team that sent everybody else home in tears.
It appeared to be business as usual when the Gauchos took a 14-point lead over Pacific, which had lost 24 consecutive games in the Thunderdome. But then, on the night of Fat Tuesday last week, UCSB was overcome by a case of the Mardi Blahs. The visiting Tigers fought for every rebound and loose ball, and they started sinking their shots while the Gauchos could not even make a free throw. Pacific outscored them 10-0 in the final four minutes.
Nesbit, a dynamic first-year guard, tried to keep the Gauchos alive, but her two driving shots went off the rim, much to her grief.
“When you’re passionate about something, there’s no greater joy than when it goes well,” Mark French said, “and no greater disappointment than when it doesn’t.” French coached the Gaucho women with passion for 20 years. He retired in 2008, passing the torch to young Lindsay Gottlieb, who’s finding that the rest of the league throws their best efforts at the Gauchos, and they have to be fully prepared for every encounter.
“Those intense disappointments can be beneficial to you,” French said. “I hardly have a clearer remembrance of anything than how I felt after the Rice game. [Rice upset the favored Gauchos in the opening round of the 2000 NCAA women’s tournament.] I did things differently after that experience. We weren’t playing well toward the end of that season, but I didn’t crack down on the players. When the 2008 team wasn’t playing well, I didn’t tolerate it. I kicked them out of the locker room and made them practice on the blacktop.”
All-conference guard Emilie Johnson said with certainty that the Gaucho women would learn from last week’s defeat. They received a bit of a reprieve Monday night when the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) included them in its 64-team bracket, filled with winning teams that did not make it into the NCAA. The Gauchos (19-11) will play Thursday night at USC (19-12), which lost in the Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinals. UC Davis will make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament after defeating Cal Poly for the Big West women’s championship at Anaheim.
Playing in one of the strongest conferences in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has proven beneficial to Westmont College. Even though they lost the opening game of the Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) Tournament, the Warrior women (20-9) have been invited to the 32-team NAIA Championships in Jackson, Tennessee. They will face third-seeded Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) in the first round at 7:45 p.m. (Pacific Time) this Thursday, March 17.
It is Westmont’s fifth appearance in the national championship tournament in the past five years, and coach Kirsten Moore notes this team is still young. The steadiest player, 5′11″ forward Angel Blanco, is a senior. She leads the Warriors in scoring and rebounding and was chosen to the All-GSAC team.
The GSAC men’s standings were top heavy, and Westmont’s 68-64 loss to Fresno Pacific in the conference tournament cost the Warriors (20-10) a trip to the nationals. Senior Dan Rasp scored the last bucket of his fine career on a rebound to pull Westmont within two points in the final seconds, but the Sunbirds sealed the win with two free throws.
Coach John Moore’s Warriors did land two players on the men’s all-conference team, senior forward Blake Bender and sophomore guard Preston Branson.
The Runnin’ Royals
Erase two minutes of horror from the CIF basketball final in 1981, and San Marcos High would be celebrating the 30th anniversary of a perfect season. The Runnin’ Royals, as they were called, took a 26-0 record into the championship game at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Long Beach Poly, 25-2, stood between them and the pinnacle of prep basketball in Southern California.
Already the Royals had proven themselves worthy. They built on the previous season—when they went 24-1, losing in the second round of the playoffs—by toughening their schedule. They took down powerful Verbum Dei and St. Bernard in a holiday tournament. In the playoffs, they raced past Crescenta Valley, Inglewood, and Edison. They clobbered previously unbeaten Newbury Park in the semifinals, 91-65. They were not physically imposing—nobody taller than 6′4″—but their dazzling teamwork left opponents breathless. All five starters—Jeff Azain, Mike Fitzgerald, Anthony Hunter, Gerry Karczewski, and Jon Korfas—scored better than 10 points a game.
“It was a dream team,” coach Maury Halleck said. “When they were young, I’d drive by the schoolyard courts, and the same five guys would be playing. They were a team at La Colina [Junior High], and when I got them, it was pretty easy. They knew where they were on the court. The open guy would get the ball.”
Long Beach Poly was no slouch, with 6′8″ and 6′7″ post players, but midway through the fourth quarter, San Marcos had taken a 14-point lead. With two minutes remaining, the lead was 10. Then, it all slipped away in a nightmare of misplays. Leroy Washington’s fade-away shot with one second remaining gave the Jackrabbits a 65-63 victory.
“A lot of oddities led to our demise,” recalled Azain, a longtime assistant coach at Westmont College. “[Poly] ended the first quarter by hitting an 80-foot shot. In the last quarter, Anthony Hunter dunked the ball but got a technical foul for hanging on the rim. You never see that called. We tried to protect our lead because there was no 30-second clock, and we lost our momentum.”
The sudden reversal of fortune left the Royals in shock. The memory has stuck with Halleck in his retirement. “I doubt I’ll ever get over it,” he said. “For months after that game, it was hard to sleep. I felt for the kids. They played so well for three years and came so close at the end.”
The CIF Southern Section final was the end of the line in those days. Now there is a state tournament that would have given the Royals another chance to finish on top. “In a rematch, we would have played a wiser game against those guys,” Azain said. “But we had our shot. That’s the beauty of March Madness. You have three weeks of jubilation and heartaches.”
Bishop Diego High went far in this year’s prep basketball circus. The boys advanced to their CIF divisional championship game, where Valley Torah overtook them in the final quarter. Invited to the state tournament, the Cardinals suffered a tough three-point loss at Fresno Christian. Junior guard Elias Munoz was a standout for the Cardinals, who finished with a 22-9 record.
Bishop’s girls were the Cinderellas of their division. “This group doesn’t want to die,” coach Jeff Burich said as the spunky Cardinals made it to the CIF semifinals, where they were finally stopped by a stifling Chadwick defense.
Santa Barbara High’s girls went out in the quarterfinals against Indio. Tess Emerson, the Dons’ Pepperdine-bound forward, finished her high school career with a 32-point, 13-rebound effort.
The Santa Barbara Dons bounced back in the State Regionals after losing the CIF Southern Section final by a goal. They finished with three straight wins, defeating Oak Hills 3-0 in the Division 2 regional championship match last Saturday night.