Channeling memories of Christian Laettner, Chris Webber and Aaron Nixon, the UCSB men’s basketball team came away with an overtime victory in the wildest game of the season, clinching the Big West regular season title and the #1 seed in this weekend’s Big West Tournament.
Senior guard Alex Harris calmly sank the game-winning free throw with .3 seconds left in overtime to give UCSB (23-7 overall, 12-4 in the Big West) a 70-68 victory over Long Beach State (6-24, 3-13 Big West) in Long Beach on Saturday afternoon. Facing a 49er squad that’s beaten them on last-second shots four times in the past decade, the Gauchos finally came out on the winning end. The victory was Santa Barbara’s sixth-straight conference win, and because the Gauchos own the tie-breakers with fellow first-place teams Cal State Northridge (20-9, 12-4 Big West) and Cal State Fullerton (21-8, 12-4 Big West), UCSB has earned a bye into the Big West Tournament semifinals.
“After we lost our first few games, people kind of counted us out, so to be able to climb back and not only be second or third, but be first, is unbelievable,” sophomore guard James Powell said. “All we wanted to do was come out of this game with a win so we’d have the byes, and it’s huge because now we only have to win two games [to make it to the NCAA Tournament].”
While the game was hard-fought throughout, the final few minutes proved to be an ending that tops anything the storied UCSB-LBSU rivalry has ever seen. Trailing by seven points with 1:07 remaining in the second half, the 49ers managed to force overtime after junior guard Donovan Morris took over the game’s final moments. The league’s leading scorer, Morris, cut into the deficit with a four-point play, and with UCSB still leading by three points and only nine seconds remaining, Morris hit another big three to tie the game at 64. Harris, the reigning Big West scoring leader, had a chance to win it in regulation, but his attempt rimmed out.
The overtime period proved to be particularly sweet for the Gauchos, as they finally got a chance to avenge a heartbreaking loss to the 49ers in Santa Barbara last season. Thirteen months ago, Long Beach State escaped with a one-point victory after the 49ers were assessed a technical with .4 seconds remaining on the clock, and a two-point lead. UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams sent then-senior guard Cecil Brown to the line to take the shots rather than Harris, the team’s leading scorer. Brown missed the first free throw and UCSB lost the game. Saturday’s ending gave Harris his chance to hit the crucial foul shot, and he did just that.
With the score tied at 68 and only 1.8 seconds remaining in the overtime period, sophomore guard Justin Joyner sent a three-quarter court pass to junior Chris Devine, who was fouled as he attempted a game-winner. Devine missed the first free-throw, but in an attempt to ice the Alaska native, the 49ers called a timeout, only to be given a technical foul after the officials realized that they had no timeouts remaining. Harris took Devine’s place at the line, and after making the first free-throw, his second attempt rimmed out. With the Gauchos up by one and .3 seconds on the clock, Devine stepped back to the line and attempted to miss his second attempt on purpose to run the clock out. However he inadvertently banked the ball in, allowing the 49ers to take a buzzer-beating three that fell short.
Harris led four Gauchos in double-figures, finishing with 21 points, including eight-of-nine shooting at the charity stripe. With 46 points in the last two games, Harris is now just 29 points shy of breaking the school scoring record. Devine finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, followed by senior forward Ivan Elliott with 12 points and Powell with 10. Senior forward Nedim Pajevic scored all eight of the Gaucho bench’s points. Morris led all scorers with 33 points, and extended his lead over Harris in the race for the Big West scoring title (21 ppg to 20.3 ppg).
The 23rd victory of the season is a school record for the Gauchos, and it allows UCSB a much-needed opportunity for extra rest and preparation before it plays in the first Big West semifinal Friday night at 5:30 at the Anaheim Convention Center. After the third through eighth seeds duke it out on Wednesday and Thursday night, UCSB will play the lowest remaining seed.