It was Throwback Saturday at the Thunderdome. A saucy crowd of 5,414 turned out to see Alan Williams — aka Big Al or, in his own nomenclature, Big Sauce — lead the UCSB Gauchos to a 64-56 victory over the Cal Poly Mustangs in their regular-season basketball finale. The electricity generated by the players and by the festive fans brought back memories of 1990 when the Gauchos took down the mighty UNLV Rebels and made a bid for the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Maybe the presence of the 1989-90 team, which gathered on the court at halftime as part of their 25th-anniversary reunion, had an inspirational effect. Those Gauchos hold the distinction of being the only UCSB team to win a game in the NCAA’s Big Dance. As the No. 9 seed in the Southeast Region, they beat No. 8 Houston, 70-66, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Top-seeded Michigan State held off the Gauchos in the next round, 62-58.
“McArthur stole the ball!” I blurted in a bad impression of Boston announcer Johnny Most (1965 NBA play-offs) when I greeted Eric “Freeze” McArthur, whose steal in the final minute sealed the victory over Houston. McArthur, the last Gaucho to average double-digit rebounds until Big Al came along, refused the opportunity to embellish the story. “It was a bad pass,” he said. “The guy threw it right at me.”
Postseason college basketball in 1990 was memorably thrilling, in a tragic way, because of the Hank Gathers story. It is well documented in the 2010 book Heart of a Lion by Kyle Keiderling. Gathers was the highest flyer of the soaring Loyola Marymount Lions, who defeated UCSB, 104-101, on December 9, 1989, at LMU’s Gersten Pavilion. Early in the second half, Gathers went to the free-throw line after being fouled by McArthur. He shot the first free throw and then fainted. That was the first sign of a problem with his heart.
Gathers was able to play again, under medical supervision, and appeared to be in fine fettle for the West Coast Conference Tournament. During a second-round game against Portland on March 4, 1990, Gathers collapsed again after a spectacular dunk, and this time he did not survive. No basketball fan can forget the horror of seeing Gathers convulsed on the floor of the pavilion.
The rest of the WCC Tournament was canceled, and LMU was declared champion. The NCAA downgraded the Lions to a No. 11 seed in the West Region. With Bo Kimble shooting free throws left-handed in honor of Gathers, they made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they ran out of gas against top-seeded UNLV, 131-101.
UCSB was the third Big West Conference team to advance to the 1990 NCAA tournament, along with UNLV and New Mexico State. Coach Jerry Pimm’s Gauchos made it on the strength of their 78-70 victory over Vegas, after which Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels won their next 45 games.
On to Anaheim
The only way Santa Barbara can return to the NCAA bracket this year — for the first time since 2011 — is to win the Big West Tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The Gauchos (11-5 in the conference, 18-12 overall) are second-seeded in the tournament and will open up with a rematch against seventh-seeded Cal Poly (8-10, 13-15) Thursday, March 12, at 8:30 p.m. The game will be televised by Fox Prime Ticket.
There is no chance UCSB will be looking ahead. The two teams were in the same position last year, the Gauchos having won at Cal Poly five days earlier, when the Mustangs administered a 31-point smackdown, the first of three upsets that propelled them into the NCAAs for the first time.
“Every coach is on pins and needles,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said. “Your momentum starts building Thursday, or it disappears completely.” The Gauchos seem to have gathered some momentum in the past two weeks with victories over regular-season champion UC Davis (14-2, 24-5), UC Irvine, and Hawai‘i. Their talent has been recognized by the conference, which bestowed an honor on every UCSB starter — Alan Williams and Michael Bryson, both named to the first team; John Green, honorable mention; freshman Gabe Vincent, newcomer of the year; and Zalmico Harmon, the best hustle award.
Williams played his best game since returning to action from a shoulder injury against Cal Poly — 26 points and 19 rebounds — and he leads all the nation’s active players in career double-doubles (48).
Coach Williams said this week he is looking for a more aggressive approach by the rest of the Gauchos, imploring them “not to stand around and watch Big Al.” It was very nice last Saturday, however, that so many fans stood and watched Big Al in his last game at the Thunderdome. It was a shame that there were too many empty seats during most home games of his career. Players like him come this way every 25 years or so.
STATE PLAY-OFFS: With the one-two punch of Jordyn Lilly, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and double-double machine Hannah Rogers, the Bishop Diego High Cardinals won the CIF Southern Section Division 5A girls basketball championship last weekend with a 46-31 victory over top-seeded Bloomington Christian. The Cardinals celebrated a CIF title for the first time since 1978, when Lilly’s mother, Paula Charest, played for the team.
This week, Bishop Diego enters new territory, the 16-team CIF State Division 5 Championships. The Cardinals were seeded No. 7 and were to open with a home game Wednesday night against No. 10 Bakersfield Christian. The higher-seeded team in each matchup has the home game, and if the Cardinals advance, they are likely to travel to La Jolla and face the No. 2-seeded Bishop’s School in the second round Saturday. Bishop’s features sophomore guard Destiny Littleton, who currently leads the state in scoring with an average of 34.3 points per game.
Right behind Littleton with a 34.1 average is Santa Barbara High junior Amber Melgoza. She and the Dons lost a 59-54 thriller to Redondo Union in the CIF-SS Division 2AA semifinals, but they may get another shot at the Seahawks. Both teams are in the State Division 2 play-offs, Santa Barbara as a No. 6 seed and Redondo a No. 2.
Santa Barbara’s boys also lost in the section semifinals and received a No. 8 seed in the state tournament. If they get past their first-round game against Tulare’s Mission Oak, the Dons will probably have to travel to top-seeded La Costa Canyon in Carlsbad.