GOLETA — Jerry Tarkanian stood in front of his bench with a blank look in his eyes and a towel hanging from his teeth Saturday during the final seconds of host UC Santa Barbara's 71-66 upset of Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. rival Nevada Las Vegas at the Events Center.
He paused momentarily, then took cover in UNLV's locker room as hundreds of Santa Barbara fans pushed their way onto their home court, shouting, "We're No. 1."
Going into the game, it was Tarkanian's second-ranked team that may have been on the verge of the top ranking because No. 1-ranked Arizona had lost at Stanford Thursday night. But Santa Barbara, at least temporarily, blocked UNLV's rise to the top of the polls with stubborn man-to-man defense and a furious second-half rally.
"We just took it right to them," said guard Brian Shaw, who finished with 17 points for Santa Barbara. "Our game plan was to get the ball inside on them. When they sagged down inside, we started to hit our three-pointers."
After trailing, 37-28, at the end of a fast-paced and mistake-ridden first half, Santa Barbara's three-guard offense took control of the game's tempo. With 12:57 left to play, the Gauchos took the lead, 48-47.
The eight-minute climb by Santa Barbara began when UNLV guard Karl James went to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with only two minutes gone in the second half. Shortly after, forward Eric McArthur scored from close range, and freshman Gary Gray then scored on a fast break. After guard Brian Johnson's three-point shot, UNLV's lead was 42-39.
Three-point shots by Carrick DeHart, who led Santa Barbara with 21 points, and Shaw tied it, 45-45, at the 13:55 mark.
Santa Barbara took the lead for good, 48-47, when DeHart scored on a drive to the basket, adding a free throw after he was fouled by UNLV's Stacey Augmon.
"Right then was when I knew we'd win," Santa Barbara guard Carlton Davenport said. "After being down in the first half, we were loose and relaxed. And we played aggressively--like we all knew we'd win."
Despite the polls, Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm, who has a 1-8 record against UNLV since coming to Santa Barbara five years ago, also said he was confident the Gauchos (16-4, 8-3 in the PCAA) would win.
Las Vegas' only loss in 21 games before this one was to Santa Barbara--a 62-60 defeat Jan. 7 in the Thomas and Mack Center.
This time, UNLV (20-2, 9-2) never got closer than two after it pulled to within 56-54 on Jarvis Basnight's three-point play and a layup.
Neither team managed to score during the next four minutes. During that dry spell, the Rebels' leading scorer, Gerald Paddio, who had kept his team in the game with 24 points, fouled out. Paddio made 6 of 10 three-point shots. Without him, the Rebels couldn't keep up.
McArthur ended the scoring and assured the victory by making two free throws with 19 seconds left.
"We had good emotion and concentration among our players, and that's what won it for us," said Pimm, who had been drenched by his players with a cooler of ice water. "Our defense was strong, and we denied them the ball down the stretch. When you are down by nine points to the best team in the country--or one of the best--and come back, you're doing something right."
Tarkanian, meanwhile, didn't want to hear any best-team-in-the-nation talk.
"This is a big, big disappointment," he said. "We didn't play well on offense and had no spark defensively. Our shots just didn't drop, and some of our players got tired."
The blank look returned.
"I don't know how good we are," Tarkanian said. "I know this--we've got a lot of unanswered question marks right now."