For the first time in eight years, the UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team made it out of the Big West Tournament and into the big dance. But matched against Big Ten Champion Ohio State, there would be no Cinderella story in the books as the 15-seeded Gauchos were overpowered by the two-seeded Buckeyes in a 68-51 defeat on March 19 in Milwaukee.
Sophomore guard Orlando Johnson merited his Big West Player of the Year award against one of the NCAAs elite, finishing with a team-high 20 points in the loss. But on a night where UCSB’s main focus was NCAA Player of the Year Evan Turner, it was another Buckeye guard that took center stage as Jon Diebler torched Santa Barbara for 23 points — 21 of which came from his 7-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc.
“Diebler really made us pay for the attention we gave to Turner,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He knocked-down open shots and a couple that weren’t so open.”
Playing on the perimeter hurt UCSB early, as the underdogs missed eight of their first nine field goals to put them behind by double digits only seven minutes into the game. Down but not out, a three-point play from sophomore center Greg Somogyi ignited a 9-0 run that put the score at 13-12 Ohio State after a Johnson lay-in.
Unfortunately, within one would be as close as the Gauchos would get. Ohio State flexed its muscles after UCSB made it close, scoring 13 unanswered in a stretch that was capped by three straight Diebler triples.
“He lived behind the line. … Diebler made us pay,” Johnson said.
After ending the half down 30-17, the Gauchos cut the Buckeye lead to 32-24 three minutes into the second period after a Somogyi slam, but another Diebler hit from distance quickly put OSU back in the drivers seat.
Though Johnson and senior guard James Powell tried to single handedly will their team back into the game — scoring 10 and eight straight second half points respectively — Santa Barbara never got back within single digits as OSU cruised into the round of 32.
“We didn’t really have an answer,” Williams said. “They were able to handle our zone, get us spaced out and get the ball moving ahead of us.”
Though the Gauchos gave a fearless effort, Ohio State was simply too much to handle on both ends. The Buckeyes’ push into the paint gave them 18 free throws to UCSB’s seven, 16 of which were converted. In addition, Santa Barbara only managed to knock down 32 percent of its field goals — 12 points below its season average — while their opponents shot at a 40 percent clip for the game.
While UCSB was able to hold Turner to only nine points on the night, OSU guard Williams Buford became the secondary scorer behind Diebler with 16. On defense, Buckeye forward Dallas Lauderdale commanded the interior, accounting for eight of his team’s 12 blocks.
Though losing to a national contender offered little consolation to a Santa Barbara squad shooting for an upset, the season as a whole has to be considered a success. Despite being the favorites to win conference on several occasions since their NCAA tournament bid in 2002, the Gauchos had endured a prolonged absence from March Madness before finally coming through on the shoulders of a team loaded with young talent.
“We worked hard — nine months strong — ever since the beginning of the summer,” Johnson said. “[Playing in the NCAA Tournament] is something we’ve been dreaming about since we started playing basketball.”
Before the Gauchos could shine their dancing shoes they needed to secure two wins in the Big West Tournament. In its semifinal matchup with UC Davis, UCSB led by 22 early in the second half, but saw the Aggies claw to within five before Powell took over, playing up to his “big game” moniker. The senior poured in 16 second-half points and was perfect from the charity stripe down the stretch to secure the 76-62 victory. While the shaky win was less than impressive, the team’s main objective had been accomplished.
“I am very proud of this group,” Williams said after the game. “It isn’t always easy. We’ve been the number one seed three times and this is the first time we’ll go to the championship game.”
In their last obstacle to break into the bracket, it took everything the Gauchos had to hold off a game Long Beach State squad in the tournament final. Playing before a raucous crowd of mostly 49er fans in the Anaheim Convention Center, eight different UCSB players made at least one shot to contribute to a thrilling 69-64 win.
Johnson, later named the Big West Tournament MVP, led all scorers with 20 points, but sophomore forward James Nunnally was easily the star of the show. Nunnally striped a three to put his team up by four with less than two minutes to play, and dropped in a pair of clutch free throws with only one second remaining to ice the game. Powell also came through in crunch time, going 4-for-4 from the line in the final 30 seconds.
“That was a huge shot,” Williams said of Nunnally’s three. “He was one of many guys who really came through late in the game.”
Though its triumph over the rival 49ers marked the team’s final win of the season, the Gauchos have nothing to be ashamed about as an NCAA tournament bid is the pinnacle of achievement for most Division I mid-major conferences. Powell, UCSB’s all-time leader in three-point baskets, probably put it best as he fought back tears after being crowned Big West Champions.
“I don’t even know where to start. Man, it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. That’s all I can say.”