It was one of the finest moments in UCSB men’s basketball history. It was 25 years ago when the Gauchos shocked the college basketball world as they beat the top-ranked and undefeated University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), in an ESPN Big Monday nightcap before a delirious crowd at the Thunderdome. That remarkable victory on February 26, 1990, all but clinched an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, where, for one March Madness weekend, UCSB was the talk of the nation.
Playing in the Southeast Regional in Knoxville, Tennessee, the ninth-seeded Gauchos upended No. 8 Houston, 70-66, and then gave region top seed Michigan State all it could handle before falling 62-58. The win over Houston remains UCSB’s only NCAA Tournament victory in five trips to the Big Dance.
Three members of that squad, Carrick DeHart, Lucius Davis, and Eric McArthur, and Coach Jerry Pimm have been honored as Legends of the Dome. The team also included Paul Johnson, Gary Gray, Mike Meyer, Idris Jones, Ulysses “Tony” Akins, Doug Olson, Bob Erbst, Mark Greene, Charlie Hill, Mike Elliott, Kason Jackson, and John Sayers. Pimm was the head coach, assisted by Ben Howland, Bobby Castagna, Ray Lopes, Steve Golston, Darren Williams, and Chris Carlson. Harry Callihan was the trainer.
Besides talent, another key to success for that Gaucho squad was its supreme confidence. “We had a great group of guys and a great group of guys before that who set the tradition,” said DeHart, who, along with fellow senior Eric “The Freeze” McArthur, was one of the leaders on the team. DeHart averaged 15.9 points per game, and McArthur averaged a double-double of 15.6 points and 13 rebounds.
“There was a great nucleus of understanding what we wanted to do,” DeHart continued. “We believed in ourselves, we believed in all the people that supported us, so going out and competing every night and playing at the highest level was easy because we enjoyed working together.”
Santa Barbara High alum Paul Johnson, a sophomore starter, concurred that confidence was key. “That’s an excellent word,” he said. “That confidence came from, number one, we had that within ourselves as players. Going into every single game, we were so prepared for the other team’s tendencies and our game plan. It all added to the calmness we had and, more importantly, the confidence we had going into those games.”
One the biggest games was the 78-70 upset of UNLV. It was the Runnin’ Rebels’ only loss on their way to capturing the national championship. DeHart said the Gauchos never doubted they could win the game. “Our belief system was always high; we believed in ourselves,” he said. “It was like osmosis. We were around great people all of the time at UCSB; we had great support; we had great energy. We enjoyed working together; we enjoyed being together. We enjoyed representing the people who enjoyed what we were doing. I think we had a certainty, not a cockiness, but a certainty that we were going to give our best, and our best usually equaled a win.”
Even with all the hoopla surrounding the game, Johnson said the team was calm, cool, and collected. “The thing about that whole year for me was the serene calm and confidence we had. I just remember going into that game with the feeling that we were going to win.”
Davis, a sophomore on the squad, recalled some of the craziness from that wild night at the Thunderdome. “I remember hitting a baseline jumper and my ears ringing because the crowd roared,” he said. “I remember being in front of the bench on the sideline, jumping up and down as the time was winding down and the crowd going nuts and hearing in my head (in Dick Vitale’s voice), ‘It is about to be a reality! Upset City!’” he laughed. “I also remember the final seconds ticking off, and we rushed the floor, and the crowd came out and crushed us. I was on the floor, laughing hysterically, high-fiving students and fans as I was trapped on the floor. Five feet away from me was my little cheerleader girlfriend screaming my name for me to come rescue her as she is trapped by students. I couldn’t hear her, so while she is screaming for her life, I am laughing and high-fiving away. After a few minutes, I saw her, snapped out of it, and pulled her out of there. She is now my wife, and we have two beautiful kids — Taja Davis, who will be graduating from UCSB this summer, and Jalan Davis, who is in his second year.”
Davis’s assignment against UNLV was to guard Stacey Augmon. “Stacey was a wonderful player, but one of his weaknesses was his jump shot,” he said. “Because of great scouting, we knew that he preferred to have someone guard him close so that he could penetrate, especially going left. So, instead, we were told to play off of him and give him the jump shot. It totally confused him, and there were times where he was open from 12 to 15 feet but would not shoot. It disrupted their offense just enough to give us an edge.”
Asked how the coaches were able to communicate with the players when the crowd noise registered over 100 decibels on the Thunder Meter, Davis said: “Thankfully, we had a very loud assistant coach in Ben Howland, who would yell out plays relayed to him by Coach Pimm. We also used cards sometimes to relay which play we were supposed to run. “Obviously, playing in front of a crowd that was as electric and passionate as the Thunderdome crowds were during that season was absolutely fantastic,” Davis added. “To have that support and feeling while playing is something that I will never forget. I played professionally for many years, in many packed gyms and arenas where there were smoke bombs going off, chanting fans, fights, riots, you name it. I have never since experienced a playing atmosphere as we had in the Thunderdome.”
The experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament was something special. Said Johnson: “I knew this was the highest level of college basketball. I remember the first day after we finished our practice and we’re leaving the court. LSU was coming onto the court, and they had Shaq, Stanley Roberts, Chris Jackson. That’s when it really hit home. There’s no higher level than this. We’re here; we’re on the same court as these guys.”
DeHart said the Gauchos were obviously excited to be at the Big Dance, but they were not intimidated. “We had to calm our nerves, but we felt we belonged and we felt we were competing for a championship,” he said.
The 1989-90 basketball team is returning to the Thunderdome on Saturday, March 7, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that history-making season. The players, coaches, and staff will be honored at halftime of UCSB’s regular season finale against Cal Poly. Tip-off is at 3 p.m. A reception will be held prior to the game at the Hall of Champions in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building at 1 p.m.