ANAHEIM, Calif. – UC Santa Barbara went ice cold in the final 10 minutes of its Big West Tournament Semifinal game on Friday night and UC Irvine took advantage for a 61-58 victory, ending a historic bounce-back season for the Gauchos.
UCSB (23-9) missed 13 of its last 14 shots – the only field goal being three-pointer by Marcus Jackson with 5:14 left that pushed a one-point lead to three – and the Anteaters earned a spot in Saturday's Big West Tournament Championship game.
"We got good looks in the last 10 minutes, but the shots just didn't go down," said Leland King II, "Right now it hurts because we played really hard. We played really hard all season."
It was a see-saw game that had 13 lead changes, the final coming on a steal and breakaway layup by John Edgar, Jr., with 2:59 remaining that gave UCI a 59-57 lead. Max Heidegger, who scored a game-high 18, including 15 in the first half, pulled the Gauchos within 59-58 when he made 1-of-2 free throws with 2:28 to play, but that was their last point.
Eyassu Worku made a long two-point shot with 45 seconds left, and those were the games final points.
"I told the team in the locker room that I was very proud of how hard they worked tonight and all year," said head coach Joe Pasternack. "This has been a long season and we did so many good things. You hate for it to end like this, but that doesn't take away from what this team accomplished."
This UCSB team did, in fact, accomplish a great deal. For one, it tied the NCAA record and broke the Big West Conference record for the largest increase in wins from one season to the next. Last year, the program won just six games and set a school record for losses with 22, this year the team increased its win total by 17 while also tying the school's record for wins in a season with 23.
"For me, it is so important that this team trusted the process," Pasternack said. "I'm someone who believes that you can't predict results, but if you trust the process, the results will take care of themselves."
The 2017-18 Gauchos finished second in the Big West Conference regular season standings with an 11-5 record. They did so one year after winning just four league games and missing the conference tournament. UCSB also opened its home schedule with 11 consecutive wins, a program first. The team also had winning streaks of eight and seven games, a first in school history.
On Friday, Santa Barbara led by as many as six points twice and never trailed by more than five, but in the end, Irvine was just a bit too much.
"Irvine is a good team," Pasternack said. "They have mostly sophomores and juniors, but they have run the same system so they run it well. They've set the standard in this conference over the last few years and we hope to do the same in the future."
The Anteaters, who will play Cal State Fullerton in Saturday's championship game, was led by Max Hazzard and Edgar who finished with 16 and 14 points respectively.