ANAHEIM — All it took was one brief halftime conversation between UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams and senior guard Orlando Johnson.
The fifth-seeded Gauchos had blown a 10-point lead in the first half of the Big West tournament championship against Long Beach State on Saturday night and Johnson had only five points in the first 20 minutes.
“Coach asked me, ‘Could you make a shot?’” Johnson recalled.
He promised Williams he would.
Johnson scored 18 of his 23 points after halftime and the Gauchos beat the 49ers 64-56 to win the Big West crown and earn their second straight trip to the NCAAs.
Fourth-seeded Santa Barbara (18-13) also beat Long Beach State (22-11) in last year’s conference tournament final.
“If you would have guessed two weeks ago that we would have been here … I don’t think you would have found two people in Southern California to go along with that,” said Williams, won the 1998 Division II national championship with UC Davis.
Two weeks ago, the Gauchos were feeling the sting of an 18-point loss to Long Beach State. The Gauchos made several adjustments on defense and haven’t lost since.
“Defensively, they went back to basics,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “It was almost all man-to-man. You have to give them credit for a team that played three months of zone.”
Casper Ware scored 14 points for the 49ers, who shot just under 29 percent (19 for 66).
Santa Barbara became the first No. 5 seed to win the Big West tournament. The last time a team seeded as low won the crown was in 1996, when sixth-seed San Jose State beat Utah State.
Long Beach State fell behind by 10 in the first half before clawing back to tie it at 27 at halftime. Santa Barbara took control with a 14-4 run midway through the second half.
The 49ers pulled within six points in the closing minutes, but a 3-pointer by Jon Pastorek with a second left on the shot clock and pair of free throws by James Nunnally gave the Gauchos a 61-50 lead with 1:19 left.
The Gauchos, who fell to Ohio State in the opening round of the NCAAs last year, lost six of 10 games entering the conference tournament.
“I think last year a lot of us were happy to be there and be in the tournament,” Johnson said after picking up his second consecutive tournament MVP award. “I think this year we have a veteran group. We’ve seen what the tournament is like and we’ve seen what can happen in a tournament.”
Washington 77, Arizona 75: At Los Angeles, with the game tied and 19 seconds left, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar was thinking timeout. Isaiah Thomas was thinking: score a basket.
Thomas’ instinct won out. The speedy guard tore up the court and hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer, liftingWashington past No. 16 Arizona for the Pac-10 tournament championship in the first overtime title game in league history.
“I knew I had a smaller guy on me, so I could get a shot off and I just made a little step back and God made the ball go in the hoop,” said Thomas, whose first name follows the biblical spelling.
Thomas scored 19 of his 28 points in the first half, and freshman Terrence Ross added 16 for the third-seeded Huskies (23-10), who successfully defended their title and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“One of these days when I’m not coaching anymore, I’ll sit back in the rocking chair and reminisce about this game,” Romar said. “Reminisce how Isaiah Thomas just totally flagged off his coach, no. I’ll remember a lot of things about this tournament, and they’re all good.”
Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams had 24 points and 11 rebounds for the top-seeded Wildcats (27-7), who won the regular-season title and are likely to return to the NCAA tournament after the school’s 25-year run of appearances ended last year.
“You never want to go into the tournament with a loss like that, and it’s always going to be in the back of our mind,” Williams said.
Washington’s C.J. Wilcox hit a 3-pointer that tied the game 68-all with 7 seconds left in regulation between the teams that split in the regular season.
The Huskies outscored Arizona 9-7 in overtime, taking a 73-70 lead on a basket by Wilcox before Matthew Bryan-Amaning was called for his fifth foul.
Romar stomped his foot, with his staff and players insisting Justin Holiday had committed the foul instead. Solomon Hill, who finished with 12 points, made both free throws to draw the Wildcats within one.
Thomas found Wilcox alone in the corner in front of the Huskies’ bench and he took a few big steps and dunked for a 75-72 lead. Kevin Parrom’s 3-pointer tied the game at 75, giving Washington a final possession with the threat of a second overtime looming.
But Thomas wouldn’t allow it.
The 5-foot-9 guard named after former NBA star Isiah Thomas brought the ball upcourt and calmly got off the jumper from the left side under pressure that sent Washington’s fans into delirium as the first repeat Pac-10 tourney champions since Arizona won in 1990 and 2002, when the tourney resumed.
“The best player on the team, that’s what he wants to do. He wants to take the last shot,” Williams said. “That’s going to go down as one of the best shots in Pac-10 tournament history, so he deserves it.”
Thomas, who played all 45 minutes, was rewarded with the tourney’s most valuable player award for the second straight year after the closest title game in league history.
“It’s praise to all my teammates because without them I can’t win nothing, especially a game,” he said.
It was Washington’s first win over a ranked Arizona team in six years, when the Huskies beat the Wildcats in the 2005 tourney title game. The teams were the Pac-10′s only ones in the Top 25 this season, although the Huskies eventually dropped out.
Thomas carried his team in the first half with 19 points, the most by any Washington player in a half this season.
“He’s just a heck of a player,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “The last shot is what everybody will focus on. He made a step back (jumper), third game in three days in the 45th minute that he played. It’s one of the reasons Washington is such an outstanding team.”
Bryan-Amaning, the Huskies’ second-leading scorer, had no points and no rebounds with two fouls in the half.
The Huskies led 59-55 when Arizona ran off eight straight points to go up 63-59. Washington went 6½ minutes without a basket before Thomas, Ross and Wilcox hit 3-pointers in succession to force overtime.
Arizona played catch-up most of the second half until taking the lead on two free throws by Williams with 2:56 left.
The Wildcats were going for their fifth league tourney championship, and first since 2002. They fell to 0-3 against the Huskies in the tournament.