ANAHEIM, CA – Ten days ago, the #5 UCSB men’s basketball team was 7-8 in conference play. It had lost three straight games heading into its last game of the season against Cal Poly, and its season was all but over.
[media-credit name=”Daniel Wade” align=”alignright” width=”166″][/media-credit] “If you would’ve guessed two weeks ago, I don’t think you would’ve had two people in our locker room, two people on our campus, or two people in Southern California who gave us much of a chance,” Head Coach Bob Williams said.
Ten days and four wins later, the Gauchos (18-13 overall) snaked their way back to the Big Dance for their second consecutive season, ousting #1 Long Beach State (22-11 overall) 64-56 in the tournament’s final game in front of a crowd of 5,341 at the Honda Center. With the win, UCSB became the lowest seed to win the Big West Tournament since 1996.
“Some people play in big games. Other people win big games,” Williams said. “[Our] guys have experience winning big games. We were confident, calm, and we came out with an attitude that we expected to win these games.”
Junior guard Orlando Johnson scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, breaking the single-season UCSB scoring record and earning Tournament MVP honors for the second year in a row. Junior forwards James Nunnally and Jaime Serna scored 12 and 14, respectively. Both players joined Johnson on the all-tournament team.
Long Beach State had finished the season 14-2 in Big West play, which was far and away the best conference record heading into the Big West Tournament. Like Pacific and Cal State Northridge – UCSB’s two prior tournament opponents – the team swept the Gauchos during the regular season.
“Defensively, [UCSB] just went back to basics in those ten days [since we beat them],” Long Beach Head Coach Dan Monson said. “[Two weeks ago], they looked like a team that didn’t trust each other. Got to give their players and their staff a great deal of credit. They made a great deal of improvement over the last ten games.”
The Gauchos jumped out to an early 10-4 lead after scoring two breakaway baskets and two three-pointers. Up 25-16 with seven minutes to play in the first, UCSB allowed the 49ers to score 10 unanswered points to take a 26-25 lead. Until that point, UCSB had not trailed in a game since it beat Pacific in the first game of the tournament.
The teams headed to the locker room tied at 27. In the first half, Johnson scored only five points on 2-8 shooting.
“In the locker room, Coach was like … ‘We believe you’re the best player out on this court. You’ve got to make sure you believe that,’” Johnson said. “I just wanted to start making plays [in the second half]. My teammates kept giving me the ball.”
With UCSB up 37-36 midway through the second half, Johnson stole a pass for a fast-break layup and hit back-to-back three pointers to push the Gauchos’ lead to nine with just over nine minutes to play.
“Orlando Johnson got it done,” Monson said. “He made two really tough threes that nobody else on the court could make. We can only contain him for so long.”
At the 2:07 mark, Long Beach guard Casper Ware, the 2011 Big West Player of the Year, hit a tough driving layup over senior guard Justin Joyner to bring the 49ers to within six. In response, Gaucho junior forward Jon Pastorek sunk an open three from the right sideline to bring the score to 59-50 and secure the game for UCSB. Pastorek finished the game with five points and a team-leading 12 rebounds.
“We know [Pastorek] can hit it. You can’t leave him open,” Nunnally said. “He’s a four-five man with guard skills.”
Long Beach struggled offensively in the game, shooting 28.6 percent from the field. While UCSB’s defense could be blamed for much of the 49er’s woes, the team committed turnovers at inopportune times and missed 11 of 25 free throws. Ware led the 49ers with 14 points but made only five of 17 shots.
“Casper’s a nightmare defensively,” Williams said. “[Joyner] handles him pretty well. He was instrumental for us.”
Now, UCSB must wait and see how it is seeded heading into the tournament. This season, the NCAA is letting in 68 teams, rather than 64. If the Gauchos are granted the 16th seed, which is likely considering their conference record, they may have to participate in a “play-in game” against one of the other lowest seeded teams that will determine whether or not they earn a spot on the national bracket.
The UCSB Athletics Dept. is hosting a selection show get-together at the ICA building on Sunday at 3 p.m. The first four play-in games of the tournament will be played on March 15 to 16 in Dayton, Ohio.