Feb. 2, 2017, was another normal night for the UCSB men’s basketball team. In the midst of its worst season under then-Head Coach Bob Williams, the team hosted CSUF with an abysmal 3-16 overall mark and just one win in conference play.
The one thing UCSB had going for them was guard Gabe Vincent. At the time, Vincent was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.8 points per game, and added along 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
His 51 threes were the most on the team and, just a week and a half earlier, he had become the 28th Gaucho to score 1,000 points in a career.
The point is, Vincent was good. The former Big West Freshman of the Year and All-Big West Honorable Mention was still having a great season despite his teams’ poor play.
Going up against Fullerton, Vincent was still showing the same fire he showed all season. Nothing was going to stop the Stockton, Calif. native; not if he had anything to say about it, at least.
Unfortunately for him, there was nothing he could do about what happened late in the first half.
After driving into the lane, Vincent jumped in the air and drew the foul, but when he fell, he landed awkwardly on his left knee.
The crowd quieted down, the coaching staff looked worried, and Vincent went to the bench with a grimacing look.
UCSB would go on to lose the match 79-53, and worse, the Gauchos feared that they would lose Vincent for the remainder of the season. Their fears were realized just one day later when an MRI revealed he had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and would be sidelined for a minimum of six-to-eight months.
Vincent said that all he could think about was, “How soon can I play again?”
“I never really second guessed [the timetable] I was given. It took me a few weeks to really process what was going on, but after that I went through the motions of trying to come back and getting healthy.”
For Coach Williams, the injury hurt him just the same. After all, he was the man that recruited Vincent to UCSB.
“I am heartbroken for Gabe and the team,” Williams said to UCSB Athletics. “He’s been a stud for three years and has also become our team’s leader. Knowing Gabe, I believe he will bounce back from this and be stronger than ever.”
Williams got it right with that last statement.
Additionally, once the 2017 season ended, Vincent was met with the bad news that his senior season would come with the shellshock of having to work with an entirely new coaching staff.
Following a disappointing 6-22 season and missing the Big West Tournament, the university decided not to extend Williams’s contract and go in a different direction.
While obviously saddened by the news, Vincent knew he had his own worries that he needed to take care of.
“It really hurt a lot; me and Bob [Williams] were close, and he recruited me, and he was a big part of the reason I came to UCSB,” Vincent said. “With that being said, that’s how this business goes, and we knew we had to move forward, and we responded well.”
While coming back from an ACL tear is nothing new in this day and age thanks to wonderful medical advances, it is still a long grind, and not everyone returns to peak form.
To Vincent’s credit, he never thought negatively. He put his head down and worked every single day to be ready come the season opener in 2018.
“Every day was a struggle. I don’t think there is anyone that has been hurt in that way who can tell you it is easy,” Vincent said. “It’s not a fun process, not easy, but you just have to take it day by day. You have good days and bad days, but at the end you’re working to come back.”
And while Vincent was working hard, the UCSB administrative staff was working hard as well, hoping to add another great basketball coach to the rotation. On April 4, UCSB introduced Joe Pasternack as their new head coach, and right away he went to work adding graduate transfers Marcus Jackson and Leland King II.
Along with the additions, Pasternack was adamant about bringing his new philosophy to this team and bring a new attitude. Most importantly, he wanted to bring a new culture, one that “honors the process.”
“Coach Pasternack did a great job of bringing in a great staff and great guys like Marcus and Leland to help us compete,” Vincent said. “He is a real competitor and he loves to win, and that’s what he is all about.”
All this constant activity and excitement only made the former St. Mary’s High School standout anxious.
Still, all his hard work would pay off as on Saturday, Nov. 11, Vincent returned right on schedule to start the season opener against North Dakota State.
While breakout sophomore guard Max Heidegger stole the stage with an astonishing 33 points in the Gauchos 85-66 win, Vincent was still there, playing as hard as ever. The senior would finish the night with seven points and a career high of eight assists on just 17 minutes.
“My greatest memory [in these last four years] is probably my first game back from injury,” Vincent said. “Suiting back up with the guys again after something that happened so tragically, and in the midst of such a terrible season, to turning it around to what this season has become is unbelievable.”
As games kept coming and going, Vincent and the Gauchos would just get better and better.
Against UC Irvine at the Thunderdome, a game that was televised on ESPNU, Vincent stole the show. The senior dropped a then season-high 21 points on the Anteaters and led the Gauchos to a primetime win. Even better, it was his first full game without his knee brace, as it broke just a few nights earlier against, coincidentally enough, Cal State Fullerton.
“I planned on getting out of the brace a week later so really it just came early; so it was different, but it worked out well, and now I feel stronger and stronger every day,” Vincent said.
Fast-forward to the current day, and UCSB has more than tripled its win total from the last season with a 21-7 overall mark and is currently fighting for first place in the conference standings heading into the final week of the regular season.
From six wins to 21, this season has been a complete 180 for Vincent.
“It is special. I mean, this group we have in general is special. They are a big part of the reason why I wanted to get back so quickly … because I saw the potential this team had,” Vincent said. “Now we just have to finish this the right way and set out what we wanted to accomplish at the beginning of the year.”
Like Vincent said at the end, however, the mission is still not over.
The Gauchos still have goals of winning the Big West Tournament and making an NCAA run.
That doesn’t mean the former Big West Freshman of the Year shouldn’t enjoy his final home games, though. In a 70-69 loss against LBSU on Thursday, Vincent scored a career high 28 points.
The loss may have overshadowed Vincent’s new career high, but if Thursday highlighted anything, it is that Vincent is back and he will be a problem come tournament time.
The senior is now averaging 12.6 points per game, on a career high 45 percent shooting heading into his final game at the Thunderdome to culminate what will be a spectacular career.
“To be honest, this whole season has been pretty emotional, coming back from injury, day by day knowing it’s my last season, so things have been building up,” Vincent said. “I’m sure it will be emotional, but I just have to harness it into a good game.”
As luck would have it, Vincent’s final home game will be Saturday against the Gauchos biggest rival, Cal Poly. The Mustangs stole the first meeting between the Blue-Green rivals, 80-79.
“The rivalry is real; I don’t know how else to put it. Even being at SLO is just different,” Vincent said. “But I am happy to compete against them again, especially after dropping that last game. It was my first loss to Cal Poly during my time here. I took it real personally, so I am excited to get them back over here.”
With Saturday marking the end of Vincent’s brilliant career, one might surmise that he wants to be the one to steal the show.
But those who know him personally know that Vincent is as humble as they come.
“It’s going to be just another game. If I go off, I go off, and if I don’t, I don’t, but as long as we get a win at the end of the day,” Vincent said.
Beyond this season, if there is one thing Vincent loves, it is basketball. This will not be his final stop, something he is very adamant about.
“NBA is the dream, always has been and definitely is not something I plan on giving up on now,” Vincent said. “Even if I can’t make it, this is still going to be my career. I have to make money somehow so whether it be overseas or G-League, I am just going to be excited to continue my career.”
If there is one thing this piece highlights, it is that Vincent is as resilient as they come. The senior is going to leave behind quite a legacy here at UCSB, and yet, all he wants to be remembered as is “a good teammate and a guy that loves to compete and win.”
That will not be a problem, Gabe.