This isn’t how it was supposed to end.

Picked as the preseason favorites to win the Big West crown, and riding a six game conference-winning streak, UCSB entered the Big West Tournament with NCAA aspirations, only to see its run in Anaheim end prematurely for the second-consecutive season. After getting blown out by UC Irvine in the tournament quarterfinals a year ago, Santa Barbara (23-9) saw its comeback bid fall short on March 14, losing 55-50 to an Anteater (18-16) squad that led the game from wire to wire.

“[Irvine] obviously has our number a little bit, or a lot,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “I can’t remember in 33 years being more heartfelt for a group of kids than I am for this group. They won 23 games and they competed, and they’re as upset with themselves as any group we’ve ever had.”

Cal State Fullerton (24-9) crushed the Anteaters a night later to earn the conference’s lone bid to the Big Dance, a spot that at one time looked to be UCSB’s to lose. With their hopes of dancing dashed, the Gauchos settled for a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, where they lost 83-68 to Mississippi (24-10) on March 19.

“I’m not going to lie and say we didn’t want to be in the NCAA [Tournament], because we did, but we still had a chance in the N.I.T. and we wanted to go out and play better than we did and get a win,” sophomore guard James Powell said.

UCSB came out strong against the Rebels, forcing a turnover on the first Ole Miss possession and scoring on the other end. Both teams felt each other out for the first few minutes, until senior guard Alex Harris and Powell hit back-to-back three-pointers to give the Gauchos a 15-6 lead just four minutes into the game. The Rebels battled back with a run of their own to get the big home crowd back into the game, and tied things up at 26. Ole Miss took its first lead of the game shortly thereafter, but the Gauchos kept things close, and Powell’s third three-pointer of the half cut the Mississippi lead to 37-36. The Gauchos shot the ball well from beyond the arc in the first half, but Ole Miss dominated inside with senior center Dwayne Curtis scoring 11 points and pulling down nine rebounds before the break.

The Rebels went on a 13-4 run to open the second half, extending their lead to double digits. After dominating inside in the first half, the Rebels took their game outside, draining three after three to pull away from the Gauchos down the stretch. Harris finished with a game-high 20 points, with Powell chipping in 18 and junior forward Chris Devine adding 14. Curtis led the way for the Rebels with 17 points and 16 rebounds.

“Curtis is the biggest guy we’ve played all year, in terms of physical presence,” Williams said. “He has great hands, and moves really well without the ball too. He’s a load to try and guard.”

While the season’s final two games proved to be a disappointment, the Gauchos did have a bright spot in Harris, who broke Carrick DeHart’s school scoring record midway through the first half against Ole Miss. The 20 points against the Rebels combined with 17 in the UC Irvine loss moved Harris to 1,696 career points, narrowly surpassing DeHart’s total of 1,687.

After entering the Big West Tournament as the top-seed, UCSB had perhaps its worst offensive performance of the season, allowing the Anteaters to knock the Gauchos out of contention and continue Irvine’s recent dominance in the head-to-head series. Santa Barbara shot 31 percent for the game, and despite being one of the best free throw-shooting teams in the nation, made only 55 percent of its shots at the charity stripe.

“I felt that we would get through the jitters and the shots would start falling, but it’s like we shot ourselves in the foot most of the night,” Williams said. “I can’t remember a game all year long that this group has been too tight, but for some reason, we did not get in the flow at the offensive end.”

UCSB looked out of sync from the opening tip, and seven missed layups and the 13 missed free throws proved to be the difference in the game. Despite the offensive problems, the Gauchos buckled down defensively in the second half and had a chance to tie in the game’s final seconds, only to have Harris’ three-point attempt fall short.

“You’re not accustomed to missing layups, and I think part of it was the jitters, and we got sped up,” Williams said. “We were trying too hard and too quick instead of just slowing down and playing the way we played for 30 games this year. When the ball’s not going in, it’s not discriminating whether or not it’s a layup or a free throw or a three.”

The Alameda native’s 17 points led the way, but he was the only Gaucho to finish in double figures. Devine was dominant at times before fouling out midway through the second half, finishing with eight points and 11 rebounds. Junior guard D.J. Posley played his best game of the season, and completely disrupted Irvine’s rhythm at times en route to a career-high six steals.

While the season will ultimately be looked back on as a year when UCSB should have gone to the NCAA Tournament, the Gauchos set a number of new standards in addition to Harris’ scoring record. The 23 wins broke a 20-year-old program record for victories, and the team also shattered school marks for steals and three pointers made. Senior forward Ivan Elliott and sophomore guard Justin Joyner joined Powell as the only three Gauchos to start all 32 games, tying the school record. In addition UCSB finished fourth in the nation in three-point shooting with a record 41.3 percentage, led by Powell who set a new Gaucho standard with a .467 three-point shooting percentage.

Harris finished the season as the team’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, followed by Devine and Powell at 12.3 apiece. Elliott narrowly missed double digits, scoring 9.6 points per game, followed by senior forward Nedim Pajevic and Joyner at 5.3 and 3.8 respectively. Elliott led the squad in rebounding with 5.7 boards per night, while Joyner easily led the way in assists with an average of 3.6 per game while having more turnovers than assists only twice all season. Harris was named Big West co-Player of the Year along with Fullerton’s Scott Cutley, and he was First Team All-Big West for a second consecutive season. Elliott, Devine and Powell were all Honorable Mention All-Big West, while Devine picked up his second Best Hustle in three years.

With Harris, Elliott, Pajevic and junior Beau Gibb all moving on, the Gauchos will have a lot of rebuilding to do next year, starting in the frontcourt where Devine and freshman Sam Phippen are the only returning Gauchos. USF transfer Jesse Byrd and freshman Spencer Ford will both be eligible after redshirting the 2007-08 season, and the Gauchos should also get a boost from one of the best recruiting classes in program history. Regardless of how the future pans out, UCSB would probably be best served doing anything it can to avoid UC Irvine in next year’s Big West Tournament.