ANAHEIM — We are deep into March, so let the madness begin.

In a championship game for the ages, UCSB battled, clawed, and eventually outlasted a feisty Long Beach State squad en route to a 69-64 victory on Saturday. The win earns the Gauchos (20-9) their second Big West Tournament title and, more importantly, an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament later this week. It’s their first trip to the tourney since 2002.

Orlando Johnson scored 20 points and claimed tourney MVP honors, while James Nunnally overcame a rocky start to notch 19 points and six rebounds, including a pivotal three-pointer with 1:49 remaining.

UCSB sophomore Orlando Johnson was named Big West Tournament MVP

The shot increased UCSB’s lead to four, and Nunnally’s two free throws with less than a second remaining put the 49ers away for good.


“You’ve got to credit Santa Barbara,” said Long Beach coach Dan Monson, “They won the league for a reason. They’re a good basketball team. They disrupted us and we couldn’t get into a rhythm.”

“Every time we lost, we got better, and that speaks to the character of this group,” said Gaucho coach Bob Williams.

UCSB jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, but the 49ers kept it close, heading into intermission trailing by five. The Gauchos got a big boost in the second period from forward Jaime Serna – “Rage” as the team calls him – who provided 11 points, six rebounds, and numerous hustle plays against the strong Long Beach forwards.

But despite the Gauchos’ best efforts, the ballgame was nip-and-tuck right until the final buzzer, when the Santa Barbara student body took the cue and rushed the floor in celebration.

“We’ve worked hard — nine months strong — ever since the beginning of the summer,” said Johnson. “This is something we’ve been dreaming about since we started playing basketball.”

When asked about the value of this championship, senior James Powell became tearful: “I don’t even know where to start. Man, it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. That’s all I can say.”

“It’s about the team.  It’s about the experience of winning,” Williams added. “I love the fact that this win has touched him… That’s what it’s about. It’s bigger than us. It’s about the team.”

Long Beach was led in defeat by an extraordinary performance from 5-10 guard Casper Ware, who totaled 19 points and five steals. That included an impressive stretch during which Ware had three steals and layups in succession, mounting a personal 7-0 run against the reeling Gauchos.

“He’s done that to us before,” said Williams. “He can score it. I think [defensively] he’s the most disruptive thing in this league.”

When asked about Ware’s performance, Monson added “I thought Cas’ was outstanding… He was dominating the game. The effort he put forth, it was a privilege to coach.”

Ware’s final layup tied the game at 47 with 9:29 to go, giving Long Beach its first share of the lead since the opening minutes of the ball game.

But as the clock dwindled and the game was still up for grabs, the MVP put the team on his shoulders. Despite leaving the game in the first half with a back injury, Johnson drove repeatedly and fearlessly to the basket, taking the physical abuse necessary to earn a lay-up and six made free-throws.

“These guys put me in great situations to succeed,” said Johnson. “I know a lot of teams focus on my ability to score, so I wanted to be aggressive.”

Looking ahead, Williams remains optimistic about the team’s chances in the Big Dance.

“I think we’re versatile enough to play with a lot of people,” he said. “We’re very confident going into that game.  We’re going to do a lot better than people think.”