For the second consecutive year, Head Coach Joe Pasternack’s UCSB men’s basketball team was bumped from the semifinals of the Big West Tournament with a 64-58 loss to Cal State Fullerton.
The Gauchos finished the season with a 22-10 overall record as the second seed in the Big West Conference but couldn’t get things done against Khalil Ahmad and the Titans.
Ahmad posted 28 points on 9-14 shooting in addition to six rebounds, just a day after he erupted for 32 in the quarterfinals against UC Davis.
Santa Barbara was led by 14 points from both Max Heidegger and Amadou Sow, but the Gauchos went cold in the final seven minutes of the game.
Sophomore captain Devearl Ramsey has been the floor general for UCSB all season and averages over 31 minutes per contest but after Ramsey suffered an agonizing groin injury in the first half, chances looked bleak for the Gauchos who have fed off of Ramsey’s leadership all year.
“It was hard without Devearl,” Pasternack said. “Not having our point guard, our leader, out there put a lot of onus on Max and JaQuori McLaughlin to bring the ball up the court and run the show and it took away their scoring aggressiveness at the end of the game.”
Both teams came out swinging with strong starts in the ballgame — through the first 10 minutes, the two and three seeds were neck and neck.
With 8:35 left in the first half and the score knotted up at 17 a piece, Ramsey drove the left side of the lane and with a sharp hesitation move, the point guard dropped to the floor in discomfort.
“[Devearl] has been the engine of our team and the leader of our team. He makes us go,” Pasternack said. “It was the first game in 32 games that he wasn’t our point guard…we were fairly injury-free this year. Unfortunately, it happened at the most important moment.”
A non-contact injury that came at the worst possible time would be the catalyst in UCSB’s end to a historic year.
Nonetheless, the Gauchos powered on through the first half and headed into the break with a 28-25 lead over the Titans.
In the second, Heidegger and McLaughlin took over the scoring duties for UCSB, and the shorthanded win seemed possible as the Gauchos ballooned the lead up to 42-34 following back-to-back threes by Jarriesse Blackmon and McLaughlin which shifted momentum entirely in SB’s favor.
Blackmon’s triple came at the 13:39 mark, and it was his first three-point field goal since Dec. 22, 2016 when UCSB played Nevada. Ironically, when he hit that shot over two years prior, Devearl Ramsey had been playing with Nevada as a freshman and played in that game.
The Gaucho lead reached a pinnacle after Heidegger drilled a fall-away jumper from the inside left-hash to give the ‘Chos a 45-35 advantage, but Fullerton began to make its comeback.
Slowly but surely, the Titans continued to clip at the lead, but UCSB held its own until there were six and a half minutes separating the Gauchos and the Big West Finals.
If only it were that simple.
Santa Barbara’s 54-47 lead was snipped down in the final six minutes as the Gauchos went absolutely ice cold from the field and couldn’t hold off the Titan comeback.
Fullerton rode a 14-4 run to close out the contest and ultimately took the lead with 1:12 left in the game after a Khalil Ahmad layup.
UCSB shot an abysmal 0-10 on its final 10 field goal attempts, but without Devearl Ramsey on the floor, who could blame them?
The Gauchos ached without their quarterback running the offense and although they made do for a little, there was no production at the end of the semifinal matchup. UCSB was unable to convert on a field goal over the last 7:07 of game-time and Fullerton caught fire.
In two seasons as the Gauchos’ head coach, Joe Pasternack has taken this team from what was the worst season in program history in 2016-17 to the best two-season stretch, an overall 45-19 record, that UCSB has ever seen.
“We have a great culture,” added Pasternack. “As good of a culture as I’ve ever been around, especially the guys that didn’t play. That’s really hard to find.
Furthermore, freshman Amadou Sow became the program’s all-time freshman leader in points scored with 391 and field goals made with 150.
Sow was named to the All-Big West Second Team, and Ar’mond Davis notched an honorable mention from the Big West for his 13.1 points per game.
Jarriesse Blackmon was awarded Big West Conference Hustle Player of the year in his senior season.
The Gauchos will say goodbye to Davis, Blackmon, Ami Lakoju and Maxwell Kupchak from their current roster.
The question looms: Would UCSB have made the finals if Ramsey doesn’t get injured in the first half?
One thing is for sure. Pasternack, Ramsey and the Gauchos will bounce back with a vengeance after this semifinal heartbreak.