ANAHEIM — Orlando Johnson led UC Santa Barbara out of an eight-year drought and into the NCAA Tournament.
The Big West Conference player of the year had 20 points, five rebounds and four assists to lead UC Santa Barbara to a 69-64 victory over Long Beach State for the Big West Conference title Saturday night.
“I go into every game looking to be the operator and get everyone involved,” said Johnson, the conference’s leading scorer.
“This time, I really wanted to be aggressive. I know defenses will try to focus on my ability to score, so they gave me some some lanes to find open people. We were making shots, so it opened up some easy driving lanes for myself.”
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Johnson, who made 11 of 12 free throws, was selected the tournament’s MVP.
“He’s got a football body and a basketball brain,” Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams said. “He’s very unique in that sense. He can hurt you inside and outside. He’s very physical and definitely the most versatile sophomore we’ve ever had.”
James Nunnally added 19 points and six rebounds for the top-seeded Gauchos (20-9), who used their ninth victory in 10 games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Jaime Serna contributed 11 points and six rebounds, while James Powell set the school record for career 3-pointers with 218.
Casper Ware had 19 points and five steals for the third-seeded 49ers (17-16). T.J. Robinson added 15 points and eight rebounds, while Greg Plater contributed 14 points, five assists and four rebounds.
“These guys kept fighting and trying,” 49ers coach Dan Monson said. “But this program needs to get to the point where we measure ourselves by championships, not by competing. I didn’t come to Long Beach State to finish second.”
Long Beach rallied from an 11-point deficit to take a 53-52 lead with 5:10 to play. Ware scored seven consecutive points off three of his own steals in 58 seconds.
“He’s a one-man press,” Williams said. “He’s dynamic in the open court. I told him I think he’s the most disruptive defensive thing in this league.”
But Johnson scored every point in an 8-4 spurt to put Santa Barbara ahead 60-57 with 2:43 left.
After Ware’s two free throws narrowed Long Beach’s deficit to 63-61, the 49ers had three chances to tie it off two successive Santa Barbara turnovers. But Ware’s 17-foot jumper fell out of bounds with 1:18 to play, and Plater missed a 3-point shot with 30 seconds left. Robinson got fouled while trying to convert the rebound but made only one of two free throws with 28.8 seconds to go.
Powell made two foul shots to extend the margin to 65-62. Long Beach had a chance to narrow the deficit, but Stephan Gilling committed an offensive foul while driving the left baseline with 10.6 seconds left.
Powell then converted two more free throws to give Santa Barbara a 67-62 lead with 8.6 seconds remaining.
“It hurts real bad,” Ware said of the loss. “No words can describe how much it hurts.”