LONG BEACH – There’s a reason for playing the full 40 minutes.
The UCSB men’s basketball team, favored by both the coaches and media in preseason polls to win the Big West Championship, blew a 21-point lead in the final 17 minutes of the second half in the conference opener at Long Beach State’s Pyramid on Saturday night. On the 49ers’ final possession, after sophomore guard Josh Davis made a spectacular attempt to knock the ball loose from LBSU sophomore guard Louis Darby, Darby scrambled to pick up the fumble, eluded a swarm of Gauchos and banked home a running, game-winning three-pointer as time expired . Long Beach State won 63-62.
“It was unbelievable,” Darby said after his game-winner. “After I lost the ball, there wasn’t enough time so I just threw it up there.”
Santa Barbara built a commanding 21-point cushion at the start of the second half off confident inside shooting and transition layups. Senior guard Branduinn Fullove nailed a pair of three-point daggers, leaving the 49ers bewildered and the game all but over. It appeared that all that remained was a second half of mop-up time.
Or so everyone in the building thought, except for LBSU Head Coach Larry Reynolds.
“I just told them that we needed to continue playing hard and we would just chip away [at the 21-point lead],” Reynolds said.
Whatever Reynolds told his squad, the 49ers responded. Backup senior center Antoine Jackson sparked the LBSU run. Averaging just 3.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game this season, Jackson’s layup at 13:31 began his three-minute, 10-point scoring frenzy, which was interrupted by just two UCSB field goals. In fact, senior forward Bryan Whitehead’s fast-break layup to extend the score to 58-40 with 10:27 to play was the only field goal the Gauchos would make for the next 10 minutes.
Reynolds inserted a zone defense that seemingly stifled Santa Barbara to sit on the perimeter and wait for an open shot. Unfortunately for UCSB, as the LBSU zone tightened, the Gauchos did not see an open look for the rest of the night. The 1-3-1 zone slowed down Santa Barbara’s lethal transition attack, which senior guards Jacoby Atako and Nick Jones ran to near perfection for the first 25 minutes.
“We didn’t do a good job of attacking [the zone],” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We were tentative. We didn’t get shots because we didn’t attack the same way we did in their man [defensive scheme].”
Darby and senior forward Kevin Roberts did the rest for the 49ers. Darby, who scored 17 points on six-of-nine shooting, cut the Gaucho lead to 11 with 7:32 to play. Then LBSU went to their best player in Roberts, who added to the comeback by continually slicing his way toward the basket and finishing off finger rolls. Roberts leads the Big West in rebounding at 8.4 per game and is fifth in scoring at15.4 per contest.
Roberts cut the game to 58-57 on a drive to the basket with just 2:35 remaining. After sophomore guard Cecil Brown missed a three-pointer on the other end, Darby tied the game at 58 at the free-throw line at the 2:00 mark. Junior forward Casey Cook, who led the Gauchos with 15 points, missed a runner on the ensuing possession, but sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche snagged the ball and was fouled on the put-back. After sinking both from the charity stripe to go ahead 60-58 with 1:12 to play, Roberts got the ball down low and posted up Davis. Davis played him well, but Roberts spun towards the basket and laid it in to tie up the game at 60-60 with 47 seconds left. The Gauchos grabbed the ball and got it to senior guard Branduinn Fullove, who found streaking Atako under the basket for the behind-the-back layup. Atako’s wide-open score with 30 seconds left was just the first field goal since the 10:27 mark.
Long Beach State called a timeout and got the ball in bounds with 20.6 to work some magic. The Gauchos played superb man-to-man defense, and after Davis slapped the ball away and Brown tipped the ball back past the half-court line with under three seconds remaining, it appeared that LBSU’s valiant comeback would fall two points short. But Darby quickly took control, grabbed the ball, took a couple dribbles and threw it up, barely releasing it off his fingertips as the buzzer sounded. The ball banked off the glass and in, sparking a frenzy of jubilation at the Pyramid while crushing the spirits of the mighty Gauchos.
“I don’t know if you ever feel safe [with a lead],” Williams said, “but at 21 points, yeah I did. Our guys thought the game was over when we were up 21.”
Santa Barbara (6-4 overall, 0-1 in the Big West) witnessed yet another nightmarish visit to the Pyramid, where the Gauchos are now 1-9 in their past 10 trips south. In their meeting a year ago, the 49ers again slipped by a superior UCSB squad by a point.
“We have a lot to prove,” Williams said. “This team hasn’t done anything. Right now we’re in last place.”
Santa Barbara faces talented Irvine (1-0 in the Big West) tonight at 7 in the Bren Events Center.
“Let’s hope we can go out and play 40 minutes instead of just 25,” Williams said.