March 15, 2011
UCSB's highly anticipated basketball season was going up in smoke -- six defeats in nine games -- and so the Gauchos decided to just torch the whole thing.
"Coach had us write down everything we hated about anybody on the team or him on a piece of paper, and we burned it in the trash," junior forward James Nunnally said. "We lit the papers on fire, and that was the end of that."
And from those ashes, the phoenix of another NCAA Tournament season arose.
The Gauchos won four straight games, including Saturday's stunning 64-56 triumph over top-seeded Long Beach State in the Big West Conference championship game in Anaheim, to earn a trip to Tampa to play Florida at 3:50 p.m. PDT on Thursday in the NCAA Southeast Regional.
It had all the earmarks of a major upset ... unless two former NBA stars had your ear before Saturday's game.
Long Beach alum Ed Ratleff approached UCSB alum Don Ford after watching the Gauchos rout both Pacific and Cal State Northridge during earlier rounds and said, "I'm really worried ... I'm not sure we can beat you guys right now."
Ratleff had also witnessed the 49ers' 71-53 slaughter of UCSB on Feb. 26 at the Long Beach Pyramid. So just who were those guys in blue at Anaheim's Honda Center?
"The Monday after that Long Beach game, we had a players-only meeting, and the guys decided to put the egos aside and just play ... and win," tournament MVP Orlando Johnson said. "That's all that really matters.
"You could see in those last four games how unselfish we were, and as a team we just did everything for each other and kept believing."
Long Beach coach Dan Monson couldn't believe it.
"They were the team that didn't trust each other, it didn't look like, two weeks ago," he said. "They really pulled that together."
UCSB, which had returned all five starters and four reserves from last year's Big West championship team, was sinking fast with a 14-13 record after getting pummeled at Long Beach just two weeks ago.
"We were really honest about how under-achieving we thought we were this year, and how we had just not been able to push the right buttons," coach Bob Williams said. "They had not been able to find the right way to bond."
But he just kept pressing more buttons, beginning with last week's bonfire of the negativities.
Then two days later, he qeued up the VCR with the films "Braveheart" and "Rocky" to accompany the scouting video on Cal Poly.
"They were real motivational movie scenes, you know, so everybody would get pumped up," 7-foot-3 center Greg Somogyi said. "Then we go into the locker room, and coach brings out the face paint and he has three colors. He takes the initiative and puts some on himself and tells us we have to put on two colors, so everyone goes crazy.
"I went with one side completely yellow and the other side blue. Jaime (Serna) had the funniest one. He kind of looked like a scary clown."
Or like Paul Stanley from the rock group KISS, with his eyes framed by stars.
The Thunderdome rocked that day with a heavy-metal workout. The blue and yellow paint soon merged into a sweaty green.
"Coach was just trying to say that there was no room for being soft," Johnson said. "That practice was a real physical one. It was a teaching point, and it was fun."
The Gauchos manhandled second-place Cal Poly two days later with a school-record 14 blocked shots.
"We're really starting on a new page," Somogyi announced.
The old one, after all, was now a pile of ashes in a waste basket.
Perhaps the biggest thing to get trashed was UCSB's match-up zone defense. The Gauchos have been a tougher nut to crack ever since Williams switched to more of a switching man-to-man.
Long Beach point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year, became Casper Nowhere every time he tried to drive past UCSB's Justin Joyner.
"They did such a good job of walling things off on the bounce," Monson said.
Some physical things had also changed for the Gauchos, most notably the health of their scary clown.
Serna, a 6-foot-9 center who had labored for a month with a severe groin injury, made the all-tournament team after powering his way to 14 points in the title game. He also got eight rebounds and frustrated Long Beach's big men in a defensive rotation with Somogyi.
"Jaime moves his feet so well and is so strong," Williams said. "Greg doesn't move as well, but with his length -- I thought he played as good a basketball for the last four games as he has all year.
"It's a nice combination ... a very good two-headed monster."
Williams also played a hunch in Anaheim by starting Jon Pastorek alongside Serna. The 6-foot-10 senior responded by getting 20 rebounds in UCSB's last two games. He also delivered Saturday's knockout punch with 2:07 to go by launching in a 3-pointer from the deep corner with the lead down to six and the shot clock nearing zero.
"Down there, in my eyes, he could've been an all-tournament guy," Williams said. "Just what he did defensively down there was spectacular."
But it wasn't until UCSB grabbed Larry Anderson's miss with 26 seconds left that the emotion finally gripped Williams. He fist-pumped the crowd that was celebrating behind him and then gathered up assistant coach Kevin Bromley in a bear hug.
"It's tough when you're coaching guys and don't believe they're good enough to win it," Williams said. "You're not playing the right way, you're not playing hard enough, whatever it is. As a coach, that's a hard thing to have.
"But when we went into Northridge game, I was believing. I made sure I told them, 'You are good enough to win this thing.' "
Williams took it even farther in the locker room before Saturday's championship game:
"You ARE going to win this thing," he told the Gauchos.
When they returned to that same room two hours later, with all their anxieties disposed of like so many ashes, the Gauchos began to light up their coach.
"So Jon!" Weiner shouted mischievously. "How long has it been since you've made a 3?'"
Pastorek shouted back, "I can't remember the last time coach would let me shoot one!"
And then the coach made a point of thanking his seniors -- Weiner, Pastorek and Joyner -- in front of their teammates for keeping the team from imploding during its dark-matter days.
"It was those three -- their effort, their leadership, their willingness to play their roles -- it was their job to not let us die," Williams said. "A lot of coaches will sit there and take credit and say, 'Yeah, I said this, and that was their response.'
"You know what? It could've been that they got together and sat around and barbecued and talked and hashed things out."
Ashes to ashes, and now a trophy to dust.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org