Even a team as good as UCSB men’s rugby couldn’t beat Utah short-handed on Saturday in the Divison I Elite Eight at Harder Stadium.
With 11 minutes left in the game, a call against the Gauchos tossed senior scrumhalf Adam Christy for 10 minutes, and he would watch the Utes erase UCSB’s 12-point lead late in the second half.
Utah went on to take a spot in the Division I Final Four that, for 70 minutes, was UCSB’s to lose.
“We played a hell of a game,” junior Reed Wilson said. “For 70 minutes we had control of the game, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards. But we played our hearts out, and we left everything on the field.”
Down 15-3 at the half, Utah closed the gap to 15-10, then tied the game at 15 after the penalty on Christy. With the score tied at 18 and three minutes left, a Utah player blocked UCSB’s downfield kick and ran the ball all the way into the Gaucho’s end zone, giving Utah a 25-18 lead. Christy returned with a minute left in the game, and although the Gauchos drove to within a few meters of the Utah end zone, they were unable to get the try to force overtime.
“That Utah team is something else,” Gaucho Head Coach Kevin Battle said. “Those guys are an incredibly well-coached team. That’s what this game is supposed to be about – two gladiators fighting it out to the end. Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong end.”
Utah Head Coach Mark Numbers returned the compliment, and was also impressed by the hundreds of Gaucho fans who came out to support the team.
“Santa Barbara is by far the toughest team we’ve seen in the last two years,” Numbers said. “And the crowd was amazing. It’s really great to have fans like that. We have great respect for UCSB, and we hope to build a great relationship and play some more games against them the next few years.”
Senior Ryan Brown rushed for a try, converted the extra point attempt and made a three-point penalty kick to lead the Gauchos in scoring. However, the UCSB attack featured few individual breakaway runs, relying more on lateral passing, timely kicking, and a shutdown defense that gave the Gauchos great field position for most of the game.
The Elite Eight loss shadowed UCSB’s performance in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. In an incredibly physical game, the Gauchos shut out Wyoming 21-0 behind a great running attack, more solid defense and clutch kicking by Brown. The Gauchos were determined to make the Elite Eight after losing in the Sweet 16 two years in a row.
“We had something to prove,” senior outside center Adam Mayer said. “Three years in a row making the Sweet 16, we finally got past it. That was the best team effort I’ve seen out of these guys for a while.”
Despite the loss, Coach Battle is optimistic about the future.
“UCSB rugby is one of the top eight teams in the nation,” Battle said. “We’ve got a good core of young guys coming through. This is a program that’s here to last.”