Shortly after the final buzzer sounded at the Ball Arena on Friday, UC Santa Barbara players and coaches walked across the court to a section of supporters who had made the trip to Colorado. They waved, gave thumbs up and muttered “thank you” as they received cheers.
The Gautxos tasted the journey that took them to the highest level of their sport, but after four months and 27 victories, their historic season came to an end.
Miles Norris scored 15 points on six-of-eight shooting, but Santa Barbara couldn’t keep up with No. 3 Baylor in the second half, going 39-20 over the final 20 minutes to make it 74-56. Lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Big West Conference Player of the Year Ajay Mitchell added 13 points and four assists for the No. 14 Gauchos, who were making their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years.
With the South Region loss, UCSB ends with a 27-8 record, the most wins in a single season in program history. The loss ended a seven-game winning streak, which was the ninth-longest in the sport.
Under coach Joe Pasternack, the Gauchos have won 20+ games five times in the past six seasons. Their winning percentage in that span is third-best among California’s Division I men’s basketball programs, behind only San Diego State and Saint Mary’s.
“What I told the guys after the game is there’s nothing hanging over your head,” Pasternack said. “We had a great first half. In the second half we ran out of energy. But they’ll be linked — we’ll all be linked — for life because they hung up two championship banners, a regular season and a conference championship and broke the all-time wins record by four games. That’s very hard to do in college basketball. We will all be forever connected to that record.”
UC Santa Barbara forward Andre Kelly drives up to the basket as Baylor forward Flo Thamba defends.
(John Leyba/Associated Press)
Led by a balanced scoring effort, with seven players scoring at least four points, Santa Barbara took a 36-35 lead into halftime.
Baylor responded, however, scoring nine unanswered points in a 2:26 span in the second half to build a seven-point lead. The Gauchos would not be closer than seven in the last nine minutes, and in the end the bear’s lead grew to double.
Baylor guard Adam Flagler said coach Scott Drew told the team at halftime to focus on three key things: defense, rebounding and scoring. The Bears were able to do just that.
After shooting 61.5 percent in the first half, including 70 percent from inside the three-point arc, UCSB made just 30.4 percent of its attempts in the second half. The Gauchos entered seventh among Division I teams in field goal percentage, at 49.3% for the season. They forced eight turnovers in the second half, and Baylor got out in transition, got high-percentage looks and turned the game around.
“I felt like we were connected and flying with each other and each other,” said Flagler, who had a team-high 18 points and five assists. “We know in this tournament, especially to win one game, defense wins games.”
“I think they got their pressure and it really bothered us,” Pasternack said.
Against a smaller opponent, Baylor used its depth to wear down Santa Barbara throughout the game. The Bears scored 23 bench points, compared to the Gauchos’ 14.
Given what Santa Barbara has accomplished in recent seasons, the players left the tournament believing this season was the next step for the program, not the last.
“For the guys coming back, do it again,” said a Norris senior. “They know what it means to be here. They have gained experience. I believe in all young people.”