At this time last year, UCSB basketball players were practicing their dance moves. Having posted strong finishes in the regular season, both the Gaucho men’s and women’s teams had high hopes going into the Big West Conference Championships, the gateway to March Madness.
The men were scheduled to play their tournament opener on March 12. The night before, it was announced that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, a contagious virus that had sparked alarm in the public health community. Within hours, the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season.
Like dominoes, every event bringing athletes and spectators together was toppled. The Big West tournament was cancelled shortly before UCSB’s game against UC Riverside. Then the NCAA scrubbed its basketball bonanza, the 2020 Division I tournament.
Months later, in a drastically altered landscape, the 2020-21 college hoops season began. Spectators were banned. Players and coaches had to be regularly tested for the virus. It was a time that tried their souls.
“Every day, you hold your breath,” said Joe Pasternack, fourth-year head coach of the UCSB men. “You look forward to making it through the next day.”
With most of the roster returning from a team that won 21 games last year, the Gauchos began preparing for the season last April. They had Zoom meetings every Friday, building trust in each other. They held preseason workouts on outdoor tennis courts for six weeks starting in mid-September.
The payoff was historic — the Gauchos’ first regular-season Big West championship since 2010. Only one other time, in 2003, were they the sole champions. They are 19-4 overall, 13-3 in the Big West, and a record 11-0 at home.
As the top-seeded team in the conference tournament at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas — still no fans allowed — the Gauchos will open their quest for the title in the quarterfinal round at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 11. The semifinals will be at 6 p.m. Friday and the final at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, streamed or televised on ESPN networks.
The conference showered UCSB with awards this week: Pasternack is Coach of the Year, senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin the Player of the Year, junior forward Amadou Sow a first-team selection, senior guard Devearl Ramsey and junior forward Miles Norris honorable mention, and sophomore sharpshooter Ajare Sanni the best sixth man.
The Big West crown includes automatic entry in the NCAA tournament. UC Irvine represented the conference in 2019 and upset Kansas State in the first round. The Anteaters finished second in this year’s standings at 10-4 after beating the Gauchos twice in December.
In women’s Big West basketball, UCSB finished in seventh place and faced a tough quarterfinal matchup against No. 2 UC Irvine on Wednesday. The Gauchos have been battered on the boards since Ila Lane, the nation’s leading rebounder as a freshman last year, opted to sit out the season. Still, they are capable of doing damage with hustle and scoring. In their last home game, Doris Jones, a senior transfer from Houston, scored 35 points, third highest in school history. Danae Miller scored 26 on her 22nd birthday on Saturday as UCSB avenged a 30-point loss to Cal Poly with a 78-68 victory.
Westmont College had the NAIA’s No. 1-ranked women’s team a year ago when the national tournament was cancelled. The Warriors, limited to 11 games this season, won 10 of them and will be the No. 4 seed in the 2021 NAIA Championships beginning Saturday in Lewiston, Idaho. The final 16 will play in Sioux City, Iowa.
High School Football Is Back
The sound of pads popping can once again be heard in Santa Barbara County as local football teams prepare in earnest for an abbreviated season that is set to begin March 19.
In addition, outdoor sports such as water polo and, in some instances, volleyball are getting underway now that our county’s adjusted case rates have fallen below the 14 per 100,000 metric mandated by the state of California.
“It feels really good for the seniors to get an opportunity to finish something they started last year,” said Santa Barbara High coach JT Stone. “They’re excited. Deacon [Hill] texted me Friday and was like, ‘Coach, I really can’t believe it. We’re really about to play!’”
The Dons received a huge boost when Hill announced via Twitter that he would indeed play this season. Hill is a four-star recruit in the class of 2021 and committed to Wisconsin, where he will report in June. He is perhaps the highest-profile quarterback in California to actually play out his senior season, as many highly ranked players have opted out or enrolled early.
The Channel League schedule was released last week, and San Marcos will host Santa Barbara for their annual rivalry game to open the season. Dos Pueblos will open its season at home against Cabrillo. Santa Ynez will host Lompoc in other Channel League action.
Spectators will likely be limited to the immediate households of players for the duration of the season.
For Bishop Diego, the challenge of building out a schedule was even more daunting due to the fact that its league opponents are located in Ventura County, but the Cardinals overcame yet another obstacle and put together an impressive slate that consists of both league and non-league opponents. Their opener will be at home against St. Bonaventure on March 19.
“We were kind of on the edge of our seats until last week when Ventura County got under 14 [per 100,000 adjusted case rates] and we got under 14,” said Bishop Diego coach Tom Crawford. “The buildup for the season hasn’t been the traditional one you would experience with summer 7-on-7 and lineman tournaments and things of that nature. Just from a conditioning and injury perspective, I think our plan is to rotate a lot of guys.”
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