The irony is undeniable. March Madness refers to the teams who make the NCAA Tournament, but the maddest teams in March are the ones that don’t even make it there.
The UCSB men’s basketball team was one of hundreds of teams made bystanders to sit and watch while teams like the Big West’s University of the Pacific Tigers danced their hearts out. UCSB’s season was ended by Cal State Northridge in the first round of the Big West Tournament, the same team that upset conference juggernaut Utah State, and the same team that was upended by Pacific in the Big West Championship.
Santa Barbara’s season came to an abrupt and unanticipated ending in dramatic fashion. With 35 seconds left to play, Northridge’s Antoine Parker converted a layup to give his team a one-point lead at 59-58. Junior forward Casey Cook missed a jumper that would have swayed the lead back to UCSB, but to no avail. The Gauchos were forced to foul.
Two Ian Boylan free throws increased the Matador lead to three with 16 seconds on the clock. The Gauchos had a chance to tie but sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche’s three-point attempt sailed wayward to solidify the upset of the third-seeded Gauchos and erasing all hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Gauchos seemed to be in control of the game, ahead 44-34 at one point in the second half. The lead fizzled quickly though, and then was completely erased after a Boylan three-ball with 3:48 left to play.
Boylan and Eto Onyenegecha led all scorers with 13 points each while senior guard Jacoby Atako scored 10 in his last appearance in a Gaucho uniform. Sophomore guard Cecil Brown also dropped in 10 for Santa Barbara.
In a season marked by inconsistency, the loss comes as an understandable upset. The Gauchos had lost two weeks earlier to the Matadors at Northridge, 80-71, and struggled all year long against supposed inferior opponents on the road and at home.
The loss dropped the Gauchos to 16-14, their lowest finish since the 2000-01 season when they only mustered a 13-15 season. Seniors Branduinn Fullove, Nick Jones, Bray Skultety and Atako began their Gaucho careers on that team and contributed significantly to the 2001-02 Big West Tournament Championship and the 2002-03 Big West Regular Season Championship teams.
Perhaps disappointing isn’t the right word for a team that finished third in the Big West on an up year for the conference. Considering Utah State mingled in the top 25 for a good chunk of the season and Pacific danced their way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Guchos have nothing to be ashamed of.
The Gauchos will look to reload next year, but replacing their senior class will be no simple task. Replacing the likes of Fullove and Jones could well be an impossible task.