For the first time in ten years, the Gauchos are dancing.
On Saturday, the UCSB men’s basketball team knocked off the reigning champions UC Irvine 79-63 in the Big West Tournament Championship. With the win, the Gauchos improve to 22-4 on the season and — more importantly — secure a berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
On paper, Saturday’s title matchup was poised to be a clash between two of the best teams in the conference. While Santa Barbara (22-4, 13-3) entered the tournament as the top seed, the Anteaters (18-9, 10-4) knocked off the Gauchos twice during conference play. With both teams allowing a mere 62.8 points per game, the winner-take-all matchup seemed certain to be a back and forth defensive affair.
Sure enough, both teams played lockdown defense throughout much of the night. But just as he has all season, Big West Conference Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin led the way for the top-seeded Gauchos, dropping 22 points on an efficient 7-13 from the floor.
Offense didn’t come easy in the first half for the Gauchos — who were playing in their first conference championship game since 2012. UCSB jumped out to a quick 10-6 lead in the first half, but stellar defense from Big West Defensive Player of the Year Brad Greene and company largely stifled the ‘Chos in the first half. With Greene patrolling the paint, the Gaucho guards were largely forced to settle for contested jumpers. In addition, an ankle injury to Big West Sixth Man of the Year Ajare Sanni early in the first half meant that UCSB had to create offense without their main playmaker off the bench.
But despite their offensive struggles, the Gauchos remained locked in on the defensive end. Head Coach Joe Pasternack opted not to double team redshirt junior Collin Welp in the paint, instead trusting the defense of senior forward Miles Norris on the block. In return, Norris held Welp to merely 6 points in the first half of 3-8 shooting. With their leading scorer unable to get into a rhythm, Irvine trailed by one at the half, 31-30.
After a quiet first half, UCSB’s backcourt took over the game in the second half. An early three by Norris put the ‘Chos up 4, and spurred a 16-8 run that gave UCSB a 47-38 lead. From there, McLaughlin and backcourt partner Devearl Ramsey went to work. With the Anteaters shifting to a 2-3 zone in an effort to stifle the run, senior guard Ramsey and McLaughlin utilized their quickness to exploit the holes in the middle of the zone. After a made basket from Ramsey, McLaughlin hit two 3-pointers to give UCSB a convincing 57-44 lead. To their credit, Irvine hung around — largely propelled by Welp. Using a wide array of slick moves in the paint, Welp dropped 16 points in the second half.
But UCSB’s depth and agility was too much for Irvine to handle. With 6:12 left in the second half, McLaughlin hit a deep step-back three to give the Gauchos a 64-48 lead. Minutes later, McLaughlin would utilize his playmaking prowess to set up Norris from deep — a shot which gave Santa Barbara a seemingly insurmountable 68-52 lead. With 4:09 left in the second, Norris nailed a dagger 3 that gave the ‘Chos a 71-54 lead. In total, Norris contributed 19 points on the night, including three crucial 3-pointers.
From there, it was a matter of running out the clock. When the clock struck triple zeroes, the UCSB bench erupted in glee; for the first time in 10 years, the Gauchos were Big West Champions.
Santa Barbara will be making its first appearance in March Madness since 2011, when the No. 15 seeded Gauchos fell to No. 2 seeded Florida.
Today, the Gauchos will find out who their opponent in the opening round of the NCAA tournament will be. While UCSB will surely be underdogs in their opening matchup, McLaughlin and the Gauchos proved tonight that they have the talent, poise and acumen to potentially make noise in the Big Dance.