The UCSB Men's basketball team defeated the UCI Anteaters 77 - 74 to clinch the Big West Conference regular season championship. In reversing the 55 - 57 defeat to the Anteaters (13 - 17, 5 - 10) that started the conference season at the Bren Center in Irvine, CA, the Gauchos (18 - 9, 12 - 4) also ensured themselves a #1 seed and bye into next Friday's Big West Tournament semifinals in Anaheim. Lower seeded teams will compete next Wednesday and Thursday for a chance to upset the Gauchos in one of Friday's semifinals.
James Nunnally led the Gauchos in scoring with 22 points, followed by Orlando Johnson's 20 points. But it was senior James Powell who shined on Senior Night, as he connected on 4-of-6 3-point shots, and more importantly, calmly iced the game with key free throws down the stretch, making all four attempts from the charity stripe. Powell finished with 16 points, while Jaime Serna chipped in 11 points. Greg Somogyi and Johnson had strong rebounding games with five defensive boards each, while Nunnally had a game-high seven assists.
UCI was led by Eric Wise with 22 points, and Michael Hunter with 18, mostly from the perimeter. The burly Wise also led the Anteaters with seven rebounds, followed by Patrick Rembert's six boards and four assists from the guard position.
UCI started the game strong and grabbed a quick lead, but fell behind by as much as 16 points in the second half. However, they made a strong push late in the game, climbing with one point with Rembert shooting a 1-and-1 to take the lead with 18 seconds left. But the crowd in the Thunderdome came alive, and the roar reached a crescendo as Rembert stepped to the free throw line. A normally consistent free throw shooter at 86%, Rembert missed badly on the front end of the 1-and-1, and the Anteaters were forced to foul James Powell, who sank both free throws to extend the lead to the final 77 - 74 margin. UCI tried a last-ditch attempt at a 3-point shot which also missed wide, and the Gauchos then celebrated their Big West regular season championship.
Seniors James Powell and Paul Roemer were sent off with a win in their last home game at the Thunderdome. Both were honored prior to the game. The Gauchos will play in next Friday's, March 12 semifinal against an opponent to be determined. Two busses will be chartered to bring fans to the Anaheim Convention Center. At stake to the winner of the Big West Tournament is the automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs.
Last night's game illustrated how important a homecourt advantage is. The players will need Gaucho fans to come to Anaheim and cheer them on as they attempt to go dancing during March Madness. Get your tickets and see you in Anaheim. Ole, and go Gauchos!