It was the wild wild Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament Presented by MemorialCare on Thursday with the first three quarterfinal games being decided by a combined seven points. Yet all four top seeds advanced to the semifinals, and this is the third consecutive year that’s happened.
Top seed UC Davis kicked off the day with a nail biter against No. 8 UC Riverside, winning by four points. Cal State Fullerton followed with a two-point win over Long Beach State (76-74), and Hawaii lost to Irvine by one, 68-67. Parity in the Big West Conference was alive and well.
UC Santa Barbara was the only game that wasn’t decided in the final seconds and minutes. The No. 2 Gauchos beat No. 7 Cal Poly by 22 points.
“From top to bottom, the parity is incredible,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “UC Riverside gave Davis all they could handle. They’re a very good team. All the games, Hawaii and Irvine was close. It’s a really talented league with a lot of great coaches. It’s interesting all top four seeds advance to the semifinals. I think that’s what ultimately should happen.”
Hawaii, the No. 6 seed, controlled much of the game against No. 3 seed Anteaters. Gibson Johnson scored a career-high 23 points, but UC Irvine made the big plays in the final two minutes, and Max Hazzard hit the game-winning pull-up jumper from just inside the 3-point line with 7 seconds left. Brooke Stepteau’s shot with 1 second left didn’t fall for Hawaii.
The play didn’t call for one particular player to take that shot. Hazzard took it and made it.
“We had a small team on the floor and our first-team all-conference (center Tommy) Rutherford at midcourt,” Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “... We made the right play to go aggressive and made the right read. Max was prepared in the moment. It was a tough dilemma. Max took one dribble and made the shot. It was well-executed. I told the team not to worry about who got that shot. Read the defense. That’s the first time this year we’ve been in that situation and were able to convert. I was really impressed with the poise we showed in pulling off that comeback.”
For Cal State Fullerton, its nail biter victory over Long Beach State was its first Big West Tournament win over rival Long Beach State since 1978. The Titans advanced to the semifinals for the second consecutive season, but it wasn’t easy.
Jackson Rowe - who scored 18 points - had what turned out to be the game-winning layup with 59 seconds left to put the Titans up by one. Kyle Allman made a free throw with 41 seconds left for the two-point difference. Allman scored a game-high 24 points, while Deishuan Booker and Gabe Levin had 22 each for the 49ers.
Long Beach State had good looks. The 49ers had three offensive rebounds in the final 41 seconds and high-percentage shots but none of those shots would fall.
“I’m not as spiritual as I should be, but as I was walking back to the locker room with one of our coaches, and he said that the basketball gods smiled on us and I thought 100 percent they did,” Cal State Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said. “Some people say it’s better to be lucky than good, but I thought both of those things were appropriate tonight. I have no idea other than it was a higher power that was saying, ‘whoosh, that’s not going in. Whoosh, that’s not going in either.’ ”
Long Beach State coach Dan Monson was satisfied with the high-quality shots the 49ers took in the final two minutes but was disappointed they didn’t fall. The 49ers had a three-point lead with 2 1/2 minutes left, then missed their next nine shots. They had tip-in and putback attempts but nothing found the bottom of the net.
“We had the looks,” Levin said. “That’s what you want. Sometimes, it just doesn’t go your way. It stinks. It really does.”
TJ SHORTS COMES UP BIG AGAIN
Big West MVP TJ Shorts II tied for a team-high 15 points in scoring, along with UC Davis teammate Joe Mooney (whose 15 points were a career-high). But it was Shorts’ outside jumper with 93 seconds left that was the dagger in the No. 1 Aggies’ 70-66 victory over No. 8 UC Riverside in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament Presented by MemorialCare.
Shorts, the junior college point guard transfer, ran the shot clock down on that offensive possession, then hit a long-range jumper to put UC Davis ahead by eight points at 62-54.
“One of the things we loved about him when we recruited him was that he just wins and makes winning plays,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said of Shorts. “He doesn’t care if it’s a steal, getting a rebound, making a play for someone else. We have a lot of faith and trust in him late in games to make good decisions and he was attacking the basket so well that we are confident with him taking that or a mid-range or even a 3 because he is so efficient.”
Shorts had six points in the first half, but both teams struggled to get in a rhythm offensively in the noon tipoff. The Aggies usually feed off their defense, and Shorts had two steals that he turned into breakaway baskets.
“I’m just really grateful to be here,” Shorts said. “My coaching staff believes in me, my teammates believe in me and my friends and family believe in me. Once I got here, if I got the opportunity, I knew it would be great for me. I am doing what I can do, and I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
Top seed UC Davis (22-9) will play No. 4 Cal State Fullerton (18-11) Friday in the semifinals of the tournament. The Aggies lost to the Titans both times they played in the regular season.
GAUCHOS SET RECORDS WITH WIN
UC Santa Barbara built a 20-point lead at 30-10 early in the first half and never looked back in a 75-53 victory over Cal Poly in the quarterfinals of the Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament Presented by MemorialCare.
The Gauchos won their 23rd game, which is tied for most in school history. With one more win, first-year coach Joe Pasternack could lead them to the most wins in school history. It’s all the more impressive considering that the Gauchos won just six games last year. The 17-game turnaround is a record for the biggest improvement from one season to the next in Big West history.
“Obviously, we turned our season around drastically,” Vincent said. “But we have one goal only and that’s to win the championship. That’s been our goal since the (new) coaching staff got here, and we’re still focused on that.”
Vincent set the school’s career three-point record with 242. He broke Michael Bryson’s record and said with a laugh that he was going to call him after his news conference to talk about it. Vincent also moved into 10th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,430 points. He moved past Lucius Davis (1,420 from 1988-92), and Davis was at Honda Center for the game.
The Gauchos used a stifling defense that held the Mustangs to just five field goals in the first half, which they led 45-18. Cal Poly scored eight of its 18 first-half points from the free-throw line.
No. 2 UCSB (23-8) will play No. 3 seed UC Irvine (17-16) in the semifinals on Friday.
EMOTIONAL BELL ENJOYING HEAD COACHING JOURNEY
Justin Bell took over as the interim coach at UC Riverside just four days before the Big West Conference season started. The Highlanders parted ways with coach Dennis Cutts, and Bell was charged with guiding players through a tumultuous time. What a job he did, keeping players positive after an 0-8 start to the Big West season, finishing 4-4 down the stretch and culminating in a tight 70-66 loss to top seed UC Davis that went down to the final seconds in the quarterfinals of the Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament Presented by MemorialCare. Bell was emotional, talking through tears, in his postgame press conference.
“The first thing I want to do is thank our guys on the team,” Bell said. “We're still kind of emotional. They played really hard for me all year. I told them I gave them everything I’ve got. It’s no consolation getting here. We obviously wanted to win the game and do something special, but we couldn’t.
“For this team to start conference 0-8 the way we did, and the adversity we went through, and to make it to the Big West Tournament, it was a good feat for these guys, and I don’t think it should be overlooked.”
Bell woke up at 4 a.m. Friday on game day, mostly because he was sick and coughing, he said. He got up, watched film and wrote in his journal.
It’s unclear if UC Riverside will hire Bell - who played his college basketball at UC Riverside - or hire someone else. Bell’s body of work with the Highlanders this season should make him a top candidate at the very least.
Asked if he wanted to be a head coach, Bell got emotional again.
“It’s funny, I always used to think, ‘Man, I could be an assistant forever,” Bell said. “Obviously, assistants are getting paid well nowadays. So I was thinking if I can get to the Mountain West or Pac 12 I’ll be an assistant my whole life.
“Once I got a head coaching job, I wrote in my journal last week that I don’t want to be an assistant coach anymore. I don’t know, once you get to kind of set your own standard and see the guys buying in and you're authentic and you kind of pour everything into it, it's rewarding. It’s rewarding for the guys, too.
Top seed UC Davis, winner of the conference tournament last year, and representative to the NCAA Tournament, had high praise for Bell and told him so after the game.
“They gave us everything they had,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “When there's a coaching change or adversity like they've seen in the middle of the season, there’s a built-in excuse for your team to break apart and separate. Guys can start to just get selfish and play for themselves or not really care.
“They were anything but that. They were a group that was focused. They looked connected to me. They played hard.”
CALLERO PUTS LOSS INTO PERSPECTIVE
Cal Poly ended its season at 9-22. But Joe Callero was focused on his players. He didn’t want to focus on a tough 22-point loss to UCSB in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament Presented by MemorialCare.
Callero held the final stat sheet folded in his hand at his postgame press conference and said he didn’t look at it postgame because he wanted to focus on the people and not the numbers.
“Our postgame speech went something like this, stats don’t matter,” Callero said. “Stats disappear and go one way or another. This was about people trying to compete, trying to do anything they can possibly do.”
Callero guessed the numbers of his team’s performance at the 3-point line (18.8 percent) and field-goal percentage they allowed (47.5 percent) and he was really close in both categories. Cal Poly made just 3 of its 16 3-point shots and couldn’t slow the Gauchos, who had five players score in double figures. Victor Joseph had a team-high 13 points for the Mustangs.
“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed because my team really fought all year,” Joseph said. “It kind of makes you upset because you know how much work you put into it. You’re a little hurt because you can’t fight with these guys anymore. But I wouldn’t say disappointed.”