On a night of brilliant defense, UCSB’s shooting from the free-throw line and behind the arc — both traditional strengths — let the Gauchos down.
UCSB’s spectacular late-season burst, winning nine of its last 10 league games, had given the Gauchos a share of the Big West Conference championship, first seed in the Big West Tournament, and a solid shot at earning an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, the biggest dance in the country.
But the Cinderella finish led to no happy ending Friday night in Anaheim against UC Irvine, a team that had beaten UCSB in both of previous meetings this season. The Anteaters won this time, 55-50, in a game that featured torrid defenses but little offensive brilliance on either side.
Dejected UCSB head coach Bob Williams shared the post-game pain felt by everyone in the Gauchos camp: players, fans and coaches.
“To force 23 turnovers and hold them to 45 percent shooting from the floor, and not win, is shocking to us,” Williams acknowledged. “To shoot 55 percent from the line is shocking to us. In a game where we get 14 steals and get to the foul line 29 times, I like our chances.”
The foul line had been golden for the Gauchos all season and had seen them ascend to as high as No. 2 in the country in free-throw percentage. Their season average, 76 percent, had won them a slew of tight games. Friday they shot a paltry 37 percent in the first half, 3-8, and only 16-29 on the game.
“It’s been slipping lately,” Williams noted, “and tonight it (poor free-throw shooting) jumped up and bit us big time.”
Down only 52-50 with under a minute to play, all those easy points loomed extremely large for the Gauchos. And it was six-straight free throws, four by freshman walk-on Patrick Rembert and two by senior star Patrick Sanders, that sealed the win for the Anteaters.
The superb UCSB defense did hold Sanders, who averages 15.8 per game, to only four points on the night.
“He’s shooting poorly right now and it bugs the heck out of him,” said Irvine head coach Pat Douglas. “But he did get 10 big boards.”
UCSB had some cold hands of its own that were even more serious. James Powell, averaging more than 12 points a game, went without a bucket until the last minute of play. He was one for six from the floor and one of four from the line.
All-Big West co-MVP Alex Harris, averaging 20 points a game and 44 percent from three-point range, went two of nine from deep and three of 13 overall. And his nine of 14 free-throw shooting was nowhere near his 81 percent season average, although he did lead the Gauchos in scoring with 17 points.
The Gauchos’ 32 percent field-goal percentage, well below their season average of 46 percent, could have been due to the pressure of this first post-season appearance after two byes, but it included seven misses on easy shots under the bucket.
“We missed layups,” Williams lamented. “I remember four just in the first half. Part of it was jitters — we got sped up. You’re just not used to missing layups. I was proud of the effort we put forth, and how we kept fighting, but I’m disappointed the lid was on the basket.”
Both D.J. Posley and Chris Devine had fantastic games, Posley snatching six steals and Devine grabbing 11 rebounds. But Devine fouled out with 6:49 to play and without his brawn inside, Irvine’s Darren Fells took control. Fells led UCI with 14 points and nine rebounds.
It had been three games in three nights for Irvine, and Douglas had worried that the Anteaters’ “batteries might be a little low.” But Fells, one of three seniors who led UCI on Friday, set the record straight.
“Tomorrow night, (in the final) look up at the clock. That will be how much gas I have left,” he smiled.
The Gauchos will get a bid to the National Invitational Tournament because of their Big West Championship. They should find out Sunday who and where they will play. But after their fabulous 23-7 season and their fervid bid to claim the Big West title and first seed in the tourney, Friday’s loss hurt deeply.
“My biggest concern now,” Williams said, “is to end this season with a better taste in their mouths than they have right now. They won 23 games and have a lot to be proud of. They are a very special group of quality young men, but they’re as upset and frustrated right now as any group I’ve ever had.”
They still have the NIT to wash away that bitter taste.
But it should hurt to come up short so close to the finish line. Real competitors have to hate to lose.
As they say, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”