Shortly after the final buzzer rang at Ball Arena on Friday, UC Santa Barbara players and coaches crossed the field toward a section of fans who traveled to Colorado. They waved, gave a thumbs up and uttered “thank you” in appreciation as they were met with cheers.
The gauchos savored the path that led them to the pinnacle of their sport, but after four months and 27 victories, their historic season was over.
Miles Norris scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but Santa Barbara couldn’t keep up with No. 3 seed Baylor in the second half, getting outscored by a 39-20 margin in the final 20 minutes during a 74-56 loss. in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Big West Conference player of the year Ajay Mitchell added a team-high 13 points and four assists for the No. 14 seed Gauchos, who were making their second NCAA tournament appearance in the past three years. .
With the Southern Region loss, UCSB finishes with a 27-8 record, the most wins in a single season in program history. The loss snapped a seven-fight win streak that was the ninth longest in the sport at the start of the day.
Under coach Joe Pasternack, the Gauchos have won more than 20 games five times in the last six seasons. Their winning percentage during that time is the third-best among California 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 to hang your head on,” Pasternack said. “We had a great first half. We ran out of energy in the second half. But they’re going to be connected, we’re all going to be connected, for life because they hung up two championship banners, one regular season and one conference tournament championship and broke the all-time winning record by four games. That’s very hard to do in college basketball. We will all be forever connected to that record.”
Led by a balanced scoring effort, with seven players scoring at least four points, Santa Barbara led 36-35 at halftime.
Baylor responded, however, scoring nine unanswered points in a 2:26 stretch of the second half to build a seven-point lead. The Gauchos would not get closer than seven in the final nine minutes, and the Bears’ lead would eventually increase to double digits.
Baylor guard Adam Flagler said coach Scott Drew told the team at halftime to focus on three keys: defense, rebounding and turnovers. The Bears were able to do just that.
After shooting 61.5% in the first half, including 70% from inside the three-point arc, UCSB made just 30.4% of their second-half attempts. The Gauchos entered the matchup seventh among Division I teams in field goal percentage, at 49.3% on the season. They were forced to commit eight turnovers in the second half, allowing Baylor to come out in transition, earn a high staring percentage, and turn the tide of the game.
“I felt like we were together and connected and flying for each other,” said Flagler, who had 18 points and a team-high five assists. “We know that in this tournament, especially to win a single game, the defense wins the games.”
“I think they increased their pressure and that really bothered us,” Pasternack said.
Against a smaller opponent, Baylor used its depth to wear down Santa Barbara over the course of the game. The Bears got 23 bench points, compared to 14 for the Gauchos.
Given what Santa Barbara has accomplished in recent seasons, the players left the tournament with the belief that this season was the next step, not the end, for the program.
“For the guys that are coming back, do it again,” said Norris, a senior. “They know what it is to be here. They have the experience. I believe in all young people.”