Gauchos on high road heading into NCAA game with Florida

UCSB's Orlando Johnson has scored 85 points in his last three games - all UCSB victories. (Presidio File Photos)

UCSB’s road to the NCAA Basketball Tournament started as a smooth ride, with wins at Santa Clara and UNLV. But then it ran into a stretch of pot holes — some, according to coach Bob Williams, as big as the Grand Canyon.

After taking some heavy jolts, the Gauchos (18-13) stabilized themselves and rolled into their second straight NCAA Tournament. They’ll face Florida (26-7) in a second-round game Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

Tip-off is slated for 3:50 p.m. PDT, and the game will be televised on TBS.

“Yeah, they might have been bigger than holes,” Williams told reporters at a pre-game press conference on Wednesday about the team’s struggles in January and February. “It might have been like the Grand Canyon was in the road somewhere that we dropped into. It was an interesting season, no doubt.”

The 15th-seeded Gauchos have put all that bad karma behind them and are focused on upsetting the second-seeded Gators. They lost to Ohio State in the first round last year.

“We just have to come out and believe in each other and execute the game plan that coach has drawn up for us, and do it to the best of our abilities,” said leading scorer Orlando Johnson.

“We just have to believe in ourselves, our teammate — the guy going to war next to us — and I think it can be done,” said forward James Nunnally.

UCSB forward Jamie Serna came on strong late in the season after dealing with injury for much of the season.

Added forward Jaime Serna, “Along with what they said, execute. Give it our all and make every stop on defense possible, every block-out, and I think it’s possible.”

The Gauchos come into this game feeling good about themselves after rolling through Pacific, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State to win the Big West Tournament for the second straight year.

Florida coach Billy Donovan has stressed to his team that it is going up against a hot opponent.

“I think as you look at the stats from their conference tournament, it’s pretty amazing what Santa Barbara has done in terms of their shooting percentages from the field, from the free-throw line, and just how well defensively they played,” he said.

“They are a team playing at a very, very high level, and they’ve obviously got a phenomenal player and scorer in Orlando Johnson and another terrific scorer in Nunnally. Just seems like in their conference tournament, probably Serna is a lot more healthy than maybe he was during the course of the year.”

Having a healthy Serna back in the line-up has revitalized the Gauchos. His value to the team is unmeasurable. He’s a battler on the boards, picks up loose balls, makes tough shots inside, is a good free-throw shooter, plays solid defense and is a good passer. During UCSB’s current four-game winning streak, he has averaged 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots while making 18-of-25 shots, and 12-of-14 free throw attempts.

When he was sidelined with a strained groin “came a whole bunch of problems,” said Williams.

Once Serna recovered and started to become productive again, the Gauchos started playing better and believing in each other.

“The players took it upon themselves, and they deserve an awful lot of credit,” said Williams.

The Gauchos will be facing a Florida team that lost in the SEC championship game to Kentucky (70-59). The Gators are led by 6-10 senior center Chandler Parsons, the SEC Player of the Year. Parsons was third in the conference in rebounding (7.8 rpg), seventh in assists (3.5 apg), ninth in field goal percentage (49.6%), 12th in 3-point percentage (38.1%), and 24th in scoring (11.5 ppg).

Three Gator guards average in double figures: Erving Walker (14.4), Kenny Boynton (14.1) and Vernon Macklin (11.3).

Florida’s No. 2 seeding is its highest since winning the national title in 2007.

Some college basketball pundits believe Florida was seeded too high in the tournament.

Williams doesn’t agree.

“Boy, somebody said, ‘What a great draw.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that would be a little bit like sitting in the doctor’s office and someone telling you that you have cancer, but it’s a good cancer. Playing Florida in the second round is a great draw? It’s not a great draw. They’re a talented basketball team.”

Williams’ team is talented, playing well and has NCAA Tournament experience under its belt.

Nunnally expressed how the Gauchos feel going into Thursday’s game.

“I think last year we were just kind of content with making it to the tournament because our school hadn’t been there in a while. But this year, we’re in it to win it, hands down.”



  1. Gauchoboy says

    GO UCSB!!!!!
    We will be rooting for your from our home in Goleta on thursday afternoon.

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