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The upset, and the rare moment of national glory, was UC Santa Barbara’s for the taking.
Swarmed on the wing, star guard JaQuori McLaughlin split two defenders with a pass that found forward Amadou Sow in the paint in the final seconds of the Gauchos’ first-round NCAA tournament game against Creighton.
Sow had given his team a one-point lead on a similar sequence only moments earlier, taking a pass from McLaughlin and making two free throws after getting fouled.
This time, with his team trailing by a point, Sow had a much cleaner look at the basket. The ball soared toward the rim. It bounced out with three seconds left.
The dream died with it.
The Gauchos walked slowly, dejectedly off the Lucas Oil Stadium court Saturday after a 63-62 loss to No. 5 seed Creighton that could have easily gone the way of the No. 12 seed making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in a decade.
It all came down to a missed rebound and a missed defensive rebound.
“A couple of details down the stretch hurt us,” Gauchos coach Joe Pasternack said, “but I was very proud of our guys’ effort.”
Santa Barbara, which entered the game having gone 1-5 in the NCAA tournament, its one victory coming over Houston in 1990, appeared ready to notch another monumental triumph.
Sow’s free throws with 37 seconds left had given the Gauchos (22-5) a 62-61 lead before the Bluejays dribbled the ball into the frontcourt and called timeout. Creighton’s Damien Jefferson missed a jumper, but teammate Christian Bishop was there to grab the rebound with 17 seconds left on a failed box out.
Almost immediately, Sow fouled Bishop and he made both free throws in the one-and-one situation. That led to McLaughlin’s pass and Sow’s missed shot that was rebounded by Creighton’s Shereef Mitchell.
“They were on me, double-teaming me and Amadou was wide open,” McLaughlin said, “so I just made the right pass right there and he’s money in the paint.”
The Gauchos hacked Mitchell in desperation with 1.5 seconds left. He missed the front end of the one and one but it didn’t matter after a three-quarters-court heave by Santa Barbara’s Brandon Cyrus was well off the mark.
Guard Marcus Zegarowski scored 17 points to lead Creighton (21-8), which will face either No. 4 seed Virginia or No. 13 seed Ohio in the second round on Monday.
McLaughlin was the key to the Gauchos' near-upset. The feathery senior announced his arrival on college basketball’s biggest stage when he rose for a three-pointer less than two minutes into the game. He followed it with a blocked shot in transition, an alley-oop pass and a triumphant finger thrust into the air as the Gauchos built an eight-point lead.
A prolonged quiet stretch followed while facing constant double teams, but there would be more celebrating after Santa Barbara wiped out a nine-point deficit midway through the second half. McLaughlin capped his team’s 10-0 run with a jumper that put the Gauchos ahead by a point and later had his teammates on the bench hopping in glee when he followed a crossover move with a three-pointer to give the Gauchos a 58-52 lead.
Creighton scored the next nine points before Sow took a pass from McLaughlin for a layup that gave Santa Barbara a 61-60 lead with 1:15 left. The duo would factor heavily in the final minute of a game that tilted heavily in the Bluejays’ direction.
McLaughlin and Miles Norris scored 13 points each for the Gauchos, with Norris providing perhaps the game’s most memorable sequence midway through the second half when he blocked a shot off the backboard and followed it with a three-pointer in transition.
The pockets of Gauchos fans howled, the upset dreams holding firm until finally flickering out.
“It didn’t end like we wanted it to,” McLaughlin said, “but I love this team and they’re my brothers for life.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.