Before this year’s tournament, 122 men’s college basketball teams had appeared in the NCAA Tournament and never won, which comes out to around 40 percent of the national pool. Yet, thanks to the efforts of the 1990 squad, the Gauchos will always be part of the select group of winners at the tournament, something that conference rivals Fullerton, CSUN, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Cal Poly cannot claim.
It takes a truly special team, or at least exceptional luck to cross that boundary from loser to winner. This year, Marshall, Buffalo, and UMBC’s shocking upsets removed themselves from that list of winless squads and those fan bases will always remember the day they became winners. While the Gauchos are in the midst of a seven year absence from the tournament, we will always remember the one time we were winners.
It is March 15th, 1990. The venue: Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. Seeded 9th in the Southeast Region, UCSB is led by the nation’s second leading rebounder Eric “The Freeze” McArthur at 13 per game and sharpshooter and fellow senior Carrick DeHart, who led the Gauchos in scoring at 15.9 PPG. Big man Junior Gary Gray, and sophomore wings Paul Johnson and Lucius Davis make the rest of the Gauchos core. All year they played an unselfish brand of basketball, relying on a suffocating defense and good rebounding, coached by Jerry Pimm. DeHart and McArthur nearly made it to the NBA with the Boston Celtics before playing careers that would take them all across the world.
The team set on stopping the Gauchos from reaching their first tournament victory is the Houston Cougars, led by forward and eventual two-time NBA Champion Carl Herrera and only 6 years removed from the Phi Slama Jama-era teams that went to back-to-back championship games.
Unlike this year’s first time tournament winners, UCSB wasn’t considered a heavy underdog heading into their game. Their seniors had NCAA tournament experience from two years prior and during the season, the Gauchos had given UNLV their last taste of defeat before the Runnin’ Rebels would win the National Championship that year. UCSB had the potential to play with the best teams in the country, but inconsistency had plagued them all season with losses to mediocre Iowa and Pacific, twice.
Hard fought throughout, the Gauchos topped the Houston Cougars on the strength of their defense and rebounding, their grind-it-out style a relic of an older era before 3 pointers reigned. In the first half, UCSB controlled the boards particularly well with 17 second chance points. The biggest highlight was a beautiful lob alley-oop dunk from Paul Johnson to Eric McArthur. Despite the advantage in rebounding and turnover differential, UCSB’s poor shooting percentage led to the game being tied at halftime.
After a long two pointer by Lucius Davis, a sophomore who in two years would achieve Big West Conference Player of the Year, UCSB led by single digits throughout the entire second half until a late run by Houston put the Cougars in the lead by a single point with a minute to go. The Gauchos would rely on what they had all season in order to pull out a victory. An air ball caught by McArthur and put back for an easy bucket put the Gauchos in the lead and after McArthur sunk a free throw on the next possession, the Gauchos led by 2 with 20 seconds left. As Houston tried to send the ball into the post for a score as time wound down, the Gauchos’ heart and soul, Eric “The Freeze” McArthur stole the ball. Just like that the game was over.
McArthur would finish with a stuffed statsheet of 20 Points, 11 Rebounds, 5 Blocks and 4 Steals. Thanks to the near superhuman effort of McArthur and support from forward Gary Gray, who finished with 15 points and 9 rebounds, UCSB left the list of eternal losers at the NCAA tournament and joined the victors, a place their opponent had reached in 1961.
The Gauchos greatest moment, immortalized in a grainy TV broadcast uploaded to YouTube with less than 1000 views, took place on a hideous orange court in Knoxville. “VOLS” surrounds the center court logo, a picture of the state of Tennessee. A small dark circle reading “NCAA” in the middle of the normal logo remained the only clue that this game meant more than a normal regular season tilt. To call the stadium half-empty would be optimistic. Still, 2,000 miles away from campus, as the clock wound down, the cheer of “Gauchos! Gauchos!” rang through Thompson-Boling Arena.
Watch UCSB’s NCAA Victory Over Houston in full here
Correction: The Gauchos were last in the NCAA tournament seven years ago. The article previously stated that the last time the Gauchos were in the NCAA tournament was 10 years ago.