After going to the absolute limit in their quest for a national volleyball championship, UCSB’s Gauchos could feel much better about their effort than the Los Angeles Lakers could feel about their embarrassing exit from the NBA playoffs.

The Gauchos won four consecutive do-or-die matches against higher-ranked teams – including a pair of gritty triumphs over No. 1 USC – to reach the NCAA final against Ohio State. They staged one more comeback when they rallied from a 2-1 deficit to force a fifth game Saturday, but the Buckeyes finished them off with a flawless five-point run. The scores were 20-25, 25-20, 25-19, 22-25 and 15-9.

Coach Rick McLaughlin and the Gauchos were magnanimous in their praise of Ohio State, especially the left-handed senior Shawn Sangrey, who had a career night, smashing 30 kills against them. The Buckeyes often put up three blockers against UCSB’s All-America hitter, Jeff Menzel, and he did not have one of his better matches. But with the Ohio State fans in Penn State’s Rec Hall taunting him mercilessly, Menzel spearheaded the Gauchos’ rally in the fourth game. UCSB will miss him and five other seniors who led the team. Sophomore middle blocker Dylan Davis, who had a spectacular performance in the Gauchos’ 3-1 semifinal victory over USC, will return.

It was frustrating for UCSB’s volleyball alumni and longtime fans to see the team come so close to its first NCAA title. The Gauchos have come up short in five championship finals (previously in 1971, ’74, ’75 and ’88), but this year’s team went farther than anybody could have expected after they barely made the postseason playoffs.

The final score of the Lakers’ game Sunday – a 122-86 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks – showed how completely they surrendered with their backs to the wall. Even worse were their ugly displays of poor sportsmanship, the cheap shot issued by Lamar Odom to Dirk Nowitzki and, most flagrantly, Andrew Bynum’s vicious forearm to the ribs of pesky Mavericks guard J.J. Berea.

It was an inglorious end to Phil Jackson’s coaching career, if indeed he does not answer a call from New York in a year’s time. Also, the glaring decline of the Lakers makes one wonder whether Brian Shaw, talked up as the heir apparent to Jackson, would want to take the reins. The team has gotten old and stale, but almost all the players are locked up with lucrative contracts and will be hard to trade.

The Lakers went through a difficult phase in 1992 when they hired a former Westmont College assistant, Randy Pfund, as their head coach. Magic Johnson, who a season earlier had retired due to HIV, briefly tried to come back but then retired again. Pfund was gone in less than two years. Would Shaw, the former UCSB star, want to make his head coaching debut with this team at this time?

Jackson obviously is a great coach, but he always came to the right team at the right time, getting two superstars – Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – during the prime of their careers. Jackson admits that good fortune played a big part in his winning 11 NBA titles.

While speculation over the future of the Lakers will be a favorite topic of L.A. sports pundits for weeks to come, UCSB has received gratifying news regarding its prospects for the 2011-12 men’s basketball season. Orlando Johnson, the linchpin of the Gauchos’ two consecutive appearances in NCAA tournament, has removed his name from consideration for the 2011 NBA Draft.

“I want to finish what I started,” Johnson said in a UCSB press release. “I want to get my degree. When I went to LMU (Loyola Marymount, where he played as a freshman) my goal was to graduate, and I don’t want to leave college without achieving that.”

Johnson ranked among the nation’s top 15 scorers as a junior, averaging 21 points a game. The Gauchos will also return two standouts in this year’s run to the Big West Tournament championship, guard James Nunnally and post player Jaimé Serna.


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