It is hard to imagine a more painful loss than the 101-65 defeat that the UCSB men’s basketball team suffered earlier this season at Long Beach State, but Saturday night’s rematch might take the cake.
Long Beach senior guard Aaron Nixon hit the game-winning shot with 0.4 seconds remaining on the clock, as the 49ers (17-6 overall, 8-2 in the Big West) beat the Gauchos (15-7, 6-3 Big West) 68-67 to solidify their spot atop the conference standings. UCSB was awarded two technical foul shots when the Long Beach bench stormed the court following Nixon’s shot, but senior guard Cecil Brown missed the first free throw. After making the second one, a desperation attempt at the buzzer was knocked away by the 49ers. The loss ended the Gauchos’ four-game win streak.
“[The free throw] felt good, I thought it was in. It just kept out on me but that happens,” Brown said. “It’s disappointing to lose any game, but especially a game like this where there’s so much on the line.”
In the battle between the top two teams in the Big West, the Gauchos led for much of the game, including a 64-54 lead with seven minutes remaining. The 49ers battled back and retook the lead on two free throws from senior guard Kejuan Johnson, but the Gauchos came right back to tie the score on a layup from junior forward Ivan Elliott. After a Long Beach three-point attempt went long, the Gauchos had a chance to reclaim the lead, but Nixon stole the ball from the junior guard. The 49ers milked the clock, before Nixon nailed the game-winner over Brown and freshman guard Justin Joyner.
In his first game back from a three-game suspension, Johnson led all scorers with 22 points while Nixon added 14 points on only four-of-14 shooting. Senior forward Sterling Byrd had a game-high 11 rebounds to go along with 19 points and four assists.
UCSB shot 51 percent overall and 53 percent from beyond the arc, but 17 turnovers and breakdowns on the defensive boards allowed the 49ers to stay in the game.
“Our guards got sucked in a little bit and the rebounds went over our heads,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They hurt us with long offensive rebounds.”
Brown led the Gauchos with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists, while freshman guard James Powell contributed 11 second-half points to help the Gauchos build a double-digit lead. Junior forward Chris Devine finished with 10 points, but he only saw 23 minutes of action before fouling out. Harris failed to reach double figures for the first time all year, shooting three-of-nine from the field on his way to a season-low nine points.
Despite two devastating losses to the 49ers, the Gauchos are confident that they will be ready if the teams play again in the Big West Tournament.
“We realize that if we’re going to win this thing we’re going to have to go through Long Beach and we want to go through Long Beach,” Brown said. “We have to put [this game] behind us because were not trying to let one game ruin the whole season. If we win the Big West Tournament and go to the [NCAA] Tournament, no one’s going to remember this.”
UCSB returns to action on Wednesday night at 7 when the Gauchos travel to San Luis Obispo to take on Cal Poly. The Mustangs (12-10, 4-5 Big West) beat the Gauchos 71-61 last month at the Thunderdome.