ANAHEIM — For a conference that thrives off the unexpected, the top four seeds advancing in the Big West Tournament was uncharacteristic.
Yet the Big West’s parity was apparent. All but one of the quarterfinal games were single-digit affairs; two were decided on the final possession.
Let’s take a look at how the first round panned out before the semifinals tip off tonight.
Semifinal 1: No. 1 UC Davis vs. No. 4 Cal State Fullerton
UC Davis 70, UC Riverside 66
How the Aggies won: The Big West Tournament powers-that-be showed nothing would be guaranteed for higher seeds.
Despite taking an 11-point lead into halftime, the Highlanders stormed back in the second with a 24-10 run. With key plays from Big West Player (and Newcomer) of the Year T.J. Shorts, the Aggies avoided the ignominious distinction of being the first top seed to lose to an 8 seed in the Big West Tournament.
Cal State Fullerton 76, Long Beach State 74
How the Titans won: The Titans’ defense, which had been spotty all conference season, delivered in the first half.
Cal State Fullerton ramped up its intensity on both ends of the floor, and kept pace with Long Beach State’s uptempo offense by disrupting the 49ers’ guards. Fullerton guard Austen Awosika, in particular, led the way in transition, although his stat line wasn’t as gaudy as running-mates Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad, Awosika’s 10 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting came at opportune times.
The Titans endured Deishuan Booker, who along with senior Gabe Levin, paced the 49ers with 22 points apiece. Yet Long Beach State was held scoreless for the last 2:30, including not one, but three different shot attempts on its final possession.
Semifinal 2: No. 2 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 3 UC Irvine
UCSB 75, Cal Poly 53
How the Gauchos won: For a team known more for its offense, the Gauchos had a balanced attack against the No. 7 Cal Poly Mustangs.
UC Santa Barbara’s offense showed up, but its first-half defense was the key: UCSB held Cal Poly to a 10:26 field-goal drought.
“I thought our guys were locked in tonight,” head coach Joe Pasternack said. “I think that was our best defensive performance in a single half all year. They were locked in defensively, and they did a good job of holding them to 0-8 from three. All [Cal Poly] does is shoot threes: They make nine a game and we held them to 3-of-16.”
The first half was vintage UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos did most of their damage from beyond the arc. Usual suspects Max Heidegger, Leland King II and Gabe Vincent led UC Santa Barbara to a 6-14 showing from three.
Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said the Gauchos won because of their maturity on offense.
“It’s like playing BYU out there,” Callero said. “They have five or six guys that play like they’re 22 to 25 [years old], I swear, and they play that way. They have so much poise. They’re unselfish, smart, well-coached and mature.”
Cal Poly cut the lead to as little as 16 in the second half, but UC Santa Barbara’s first half was too much to overcome for the upset-minded Mustangs.
“You’ve gotta give [Santa Barbara] credit,” Callero said. “They have good starters from top to bottom. I believe that they’re a team that has all the tools to win a conference championship, and you can see by their record that they’ve demonstrated it over the past three or four months.”
UC Irvine 68, Hawai’i 67
How the Anteaters won: In arguably the toughest matchup of the night, the Anteaters duked it out with the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors in a defensive slugfest. Both teams shot below 50 percent from the field, and at several points in the game, each team nearly had as many made field goals as they had personal fouls, which was not ideal.
Hawai’i’s gameplan to force UC Irvine’s guards to carry the offensive load was executed to perfection for the first 38 minutes. Mike Thomas, Gibson Johnson and Jack Purchase neutralized UC Irvine’s plethora of bigs, baiting Tommy Rutherford and Elston Jones into early foul trouble. Rutherford played a mere three minutes in the first half, which allowed the Rainbow Warriors to not only attack the basket and draw fouls, but also exploit mismatches with their stretch forwards.
“Credit to Hawaii and the players on their team, and especially to their senior big guys,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “I thought Gibson Johnson and Mike Thomas were incredible tonight, and the level that Hawai’i played us was difficult to match.”
Johnson led the Rainbow Warriors with a career-high 23 points on 8-10 shooting, with the bulk of his points coming late in the second half.
After the final media timeout, UC Irvine’s trio of sophomore guards came alive. UC Irvine outscored Hawai’i 10-3 down the stretch by causing three key turnovers and forcing a jump ball.
“Towards the end, we were trapping and flying all over the place, trying to get steals,” guard Eyassu Worku said. “And thankfully we were able to get those stops. It all comes down to defense at the end of the day.”
Worku led the charge, Evan Leonard made up for his missed free throws in last week’s double-overtime loss to UC Davis, then Max Hazzard sealed the deal by sinking a contested 15-footer:
“I told the team we would not worry about who got that shot,” Turner said, “We would read the defense and make the right play [because] the balance of this team is one of our strengths.”
Hazzard’s shot was almost cathartic for the Anteaters, who found themselves at the wrong end of come-from-behind victories this season.
“Last week we played Davis and the [last-second shot] opportunity didn’t go our way,” Worku said.
“That’s the first time this year that we’ve been in this situation and converted,” Turner said, reflecting his player’s sentiment. “We had a few of those plays where we weren’t able to convert. With the youth of this team, it think that makes sense. But I was really impressed at the poise we showed pulling off that comeback.”