It was a hell of a run, but it couldn’t make it all the way.
On March 13, the UCSB men’s basketball team fell to Big West Champion Cal State Northridge 67-60 in the semifinal match of the conference tournament. The loss ended an impressive second half of the season by the Gauchos, who pulled themselves out of the very bottom of the Big West to finish fourth in the season and beat Fullerton 73-64 in the tournament quarterfinals.
“I admired how we competed,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Credit [Northridge’s] zone, because we struggled with it, but we went from a 2-7 record to playing in the semifinals of the league tournament. We started to improve after a brutal loss to Cal State Fullerton [after leading by 22 at the half]. We had a real gut-check and won the next game at UC Irvine, and things really started turning at that point.”
Santa Barbara hung tough in the first half against CSUN, overcoming a nine-point deficit to head to the locker room with the score knotted at 30. But despite only giving up seven turnovers in the second half versus 15 in the first, the Gauchos could not rein in the Matadors thanks to the play of backup guard Rodrigue Mels. Mels, who went 4-10 for 12 points in the first half, hit 67 percent of his shots down the stretch to finish with a crushing 28 points.
“We acknowledge a determined team and a determined head coach,” Williams said, referring to CSUN and Head Coach Bobby Braswell. “There was too much Rodrigue Mels and [senior forward] Tremaine Townsend. Their athleticism was too much for us. They have overcome a great deal this year and are very deserving of where they are.”
Santa Barbara switched from a man defense to a zone partway through the first half after the speedy Northridge players blew by the Gauchos’ on-ball defenders. The switch paid off in a dominant closing run by UCSB to head into the half with a tie. However, Mels’ hot second-half shooting forced Santa Barbara to press on him, and the mismatches on the court simply became too numerous for the Gauchos to keep up with.
“I thought it was pretty hard to match up actually, especially in the zone,” freshman forward Jaime Serna said. “They have one very lanky guy and one very physical guy so if even they were to take one out, they still have another guy who can play. It’s hard to keep the inside clogged because they have so many good shooters, so that was definitely a problem for us.”
The loss was a disappointing end to the careers of Santa Barbara’s three seniors, guards DJ Posley and Nick Quick and forward Chris Devine. Devine led UCSB in the match with 16 points and seven boards despite receiving the brunt of the focus of the CSUN defense. Devine, a sixth-year senior, has proven to be one of the greatest players in school history and finished third on the all-time list with 1,608 points.
“I’m ready for a change of scenery as far as basketball is concerned, not in a bad way, but I’m welcoming what’s next,” Devine said. “At the same time, it’s tough. It’s tough to play for six years or be around for six years and not get to the show, to not win a championship here. That’s really what I came in [looking to do]; that was my ultimate goal.”
Despite the loss, the Gauchos showed incredible potential in the turnaround they made this season. With only three seniors being lost to graduation and a host of freshmen that have already made significant contributions this year, Santa Barbara will be a force next season. Williams said that he was truly impressed with the change in effort and intensity that his team made to finish so strongly.
“It was almost a reverse or a recommitment on how hard you have to work to be good,” Williams said. “Our bench gained confidence, our freshmen gained confidence. Our freshmen became more aggressive. We had great leadership from our seniors, and our young guys really improved. All in all, I am very proud of this team.”