March 8, 2003
RIVERSIDE, Calif. -
The message on the dry erase board in the UC Santa Barbara locker room was clear:
2002-03 goal: Big West Conference Regular Season Championship - alone!
The Gauchos got the message, claiming their first Big West regular season title ever with a 70-55 win at UC Riverside on Saturday night.
The victory gives UCSB a 14-4 league record, one game ahead of second-place UC Irvine, which finished the regular season with a 13-5 league mark. Had the Gauchos lost to Riverside, UCSB would still have earned the Big West Tournament's number one seed, but the regular season crown would have been shared with the Anteaters.
"We were selfish with this one," said head coach Bob Williams. "On Thursday night at Fullerton, we were aiming to get the number one seed, but we weren't satisfied with that. We wanted to win the title outright. Nobody was talking about sharing this."
The Gauchos open the Big West Tournament on Thursday, March 13 at 2:30 p.m. against the eighth-seeded University of the Pacific. The tourney will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center.
As has often been the case during the conference season, Santa Barbara led at halftime and were never caught. That's not to say it didn't get interesting, but the Highlanders could never quite get to the top of the hill.
The Gauchos led by two at half and over the first 8:29 of the second half, they outscored UCR 19-5, building a comfortable 49-33 advantage. But with a chance to expand the lead even more, junior guard Branduinn Fullove shot a 16-footer that went around the cylinder three times, went way down, and then popped back out. The Highlanders rebounded and on the fast break that followed, Fullove was called for an intentional foul on UCR swingman Mark Miller. Miller made just one of two free throws, but that seemed to ignite his team.
Over the next four minutes UCSB was outscored 14-4, and with 6:23 remaining in the game, the lead was just six, 53-47. Following a timeout, junior forward Bryan Whitehead made one out of two free throws on back-to-back possessions, giving the Gauchos a 55-47 lead.
Then, Whitehead provided the exclamation point for the regular season championship. After a charging call on UCR guard Ted Bell, the Gauchos got the ball up court quickly. Jacoby Atako took the ball on the left wing and threw a perfect bullet pass to Whitehead, who was streaking down the middle of the lane. Whitehead, without putting the ball on the floor, threw down a powerful slam dunk to give UCSB a 57-47 lead.
After a tough defensive stand, Fullove put the capper on the game by nailing his third three-point basket of the night, giving the Gauchos a 60-47 lead with 3:54 to go.
Atako scored six points in the final 2:32 to help UCSB keep its distance, and the Gauchos won going away, 70-55.
Fullove led UCSB with 18 points and nine rebounds. Mark Hull used an 8-of-9 performance from the free throw line to finish with 15 points, and he added six rebounds. Whitehead played the best game of his career and it showed in the numbers as he finished with 13 points, ten rebounds, one blocked shot, one steal and one assist.
Overall, the Gauchos finish the regular season with a four-game winning streak and a record of 17-12. The 14-4 record in Big West play represents school records for most league wins and highest winning percentage. Still, Williams and his team are not satisfied.
"This was one of our goals," he said, of the Gauchos first-ever regular season championshp. "But this was just one step towards getting back to the NCAA Tournament. Winning the league tournament, defending our championship from last year is very important and we look forward to the challenge."