The Gauchos roared into March like a lion… and purred out meeker than a kitten.
The UCSB men’s basketball team, the 2003 Big West regular season champions, lost its final two postseason games after heading into the Big West Tournament in Anaheim with four straight wins. Scraping by Pacific in the first round, Santa Barbara dropped a stunner to Cal Poly 67-52 on March 14 and then fell to San Diego State 67-62 in overtime in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament on March 19.
Expected to breeze through the Big West tourney en route to a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, the first-seeded Gauchos stumbled upon an upstart fourth-seeded Cal Poly bunch. The Mustangs defeated UCSB on Feb. 20 to halt a 10-game losing skid to the Gauchos before a television audience and the largest crowd in Mott Gym, with 3,032 fans.
The stigma of the win stuck with Cal Poly in Anaheim, and the Mustangs embarrassed the Gauchos with a game-ending 21-6 run, including nailing 10-11 free throws in the final five minutes. UCSB countered with only two points in the final five minutes.
Cal Poly junior forward Varnie Dennis scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. UCSB junior guard Nick Jones pumped in 19 points. Cal Poly junior forward Shane Schilling played phenomenal defense on 2003 Big West Player of the Year Branduinn Fullove, holding the junior guard to two points on a 0-8 wipeout from the field. Schilling added 14 points for Cal Poly (16-14).
Despite the surprising loss, UCSB (18-14 overall) found a spot in the NIT, facing SDSU at Cox Arena in San Diego. Senior forward Mark Hull enjoyed his best game since scoring a career-high 32 points against Arizona in the Big Dance on March 14, 2002. Hull scored 28 points against the Aztecs while stroking 5-9 three-pointers. Hull also swiped three balls and grabbed five rebounds. The only other Gaucho in double figures was Jones with 12 points.
SDSU overcame a 32-22 halftime deficit to knot the affair 52-52 on nailing a running 10-foot jumper with 1.9 seconds left to tie the game again 54-54. Hull almost threw the game away when he turned it over on the inbounds pass to Aztec senior guard Tony Bland, who missed the desperation three at the buzzer.
Hull came out with a fury in the overtime, scoring six straight points for a 60-54 lead. SDSU senior center Mike Mackell responded with six straight points in 45 seconds to tie the score.
Sophomore guard Tommy Johnson sunk a three-point shot in the right corner to put the Aztecs up 63-60 with 1:14 left. San Diego State never looked back. SDSU ended the game on a backbreaking 13-2 run to win its first-ever Division I postseason game.
The Gauchos last met San Diego State in a triple-overtime on Dec. 6, 2000 at the Thunderdome. UCSB prevailed 80-77. The Aztecs lost to Texas Tech in the second round of the NIT and finished their season 16-14.