The UC Santa Barbara Men’s Basketball team (27-7,15-5) defeated the Cal State Fullerton Titans (20-13,12-6) 72-62 in the Big West Conference Championships final at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada on Saturday, March 11, claiming their second postseason conference title in three years.
The Gauchos were led by the 2022-23 Big West Conference player of the year sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell with 20 points, while Fullerton junior guard Max Jones finished with 18 points in the losing effort.
A three-pointer from senior forward Miles Norris got the Gauchos off to a hot start. However, seven straight points from Jones helped give Fullerton a 9-0 run to take a 9-3 lead. Still, UCSB fought back, scoring seven of the next nine points capped off with a jumper from graduate forward Andre Kelly, putting the score at 11-10 in favor of CSUF.
Both teams went three minutes without a bucket until a layup from Fullerton senior guard Jalen Harris finally broke the cold streak. The teams went back and forth in a closely contested affair with neither team gaining an edge. With the game gridlocked at 24-24, UCSB finally broke the stalemate, scoring six straight points to get their largest lead of the first half, 30-24.
A three-pointer from junior guard Latrell Wrightsell Jr. brought Fullerton back to a one point deficit with a minute left in the first half. A UCSB free throw gave the Gauchos a two-point lead heading into the break, 33-31.
At halftime, Fullerton was led by Harris with 10 points and Jones who tallied nine points on 50% of his shooting. The Titans shot 12-26 (46.2%) from the field and 1-7 (14.3%) from three. The Gauchos, on the other hand, had a much more balanced scoring half, led by Kelly with seven points. Norris, Mitchell and sophomore guard Cole Anderson also contributed with six points apiece. The Gauchos shot the ball 12-27 (44.4%) from the field and 4-10 (40%) from beyond the arc.
The second half brought a similar intensity, as both teams left it all out on the floor with a spot in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament on the line. Fullerton regained the lead right out of the break with quick buckets from Harris and Jones. Both teams traded baskets until a three-pointer by redshirt senior guard Calvin Wishart put UCSB up 45-37 and capped an 8-0 Gauchos run. However, Fullerton stormed back once again with an-and-one bucket from senior guard Tory San Antonio and cut the UCSB lead to one, 47-46. Then, a bucket from senior forward Vincent Lee gave Fullerton the lead, 48-47, with eight minutes left.
A three-minute scoring drought ensued for Fullerton as an 8-0 run by UCSB gave the Gauchos a 63-54 lead with two minutes left. A three-pointer from Wishart gave UCSB their largest lead of the game, 66-56, with just under two minutes remaining. The run proved to be the turning point of the game as the Gauchos held on for the victory, 72-62.
For Fullerton, their quest for back-to-back Big West championships came up short, while the Gauchos will be the sole team representing the Big West Conference in the 2023 NCAA tournament.
After the game, UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack spoke about the joy of returning to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“I am just so happy for our players to be able to experience March Madness,” Pasternack said. “It is the greatest spectacle in all of sports, in my opinion. With the adversity our guys went through this season, losing two of our top six players due to injury and losing three straight games because of that, the way our guys responded to that shows so much character and competitive spirit.”
The Gauchos will play Baylor University in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, March 17 at 10:30 a.m. PST at the Ball Arena in Denver, CO. The game can be streamed on TNT.
James Huston is a Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.