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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UC Santa Barbara's Jaime Serna brings fiery spark to NCAA clash with Florida

Serna, a 6-foot-9 center, has been a strong force in the middle for the Gauchos, who've captured their second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

March 16, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UC Santa Barbara forward Jaime Serna has played an important role in pushing the Gauchos into the NCAA tournament.
UC Santa Barbara forward Jaime Serna has played an important role in pushing… (John Raoux / Associated…)

There is a special ingredient center Jaime Serna brings to the UC Santa Barbara basketball team.

"Controlled rage," Coach Bob Williams says.

"Not so much the controlled part," Serna admits.

That was obvious in Anaheim last week as the Gauchos, who finished tied for fourth during the Big West Conference regular season, bulled their way to the league's tournament championship.

Serna fouled out with 26 seconds left after scoring 14 points in a 64-56 win over Long Beach State that secured Santa Barbara's NCAA tournament spot. Leaving the game, he gave an emphatic high-five to Williams … then to the assistant coaches … then to teammates … then to the trainer … then the young lady who handed out towels and water.

Then he passed the bench and kept going until reaching a band member, giving him a slap as well.

"I did that?" Serna says. "I guess I was caught up in the moment."

As often happens.

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Serna, who missed six games with a groin injury and spent two months getting back into shape, has averaged 10 points and six rebounds in the last eight games.

His late-season contributions have helped the Gauchos (18-13) to four consecutive wins heading into Thursday's second-round NCAA Southeast Regional game against second-seeded Florida (26-7) in Tampa, Fla.

It is the second consecutive NCAA appearance for the Gauchos, who lost to second-seeded Ohio State in their tournament opener last season.

"I remember being so nervous last year," Serna says. "We came down the tunnel and saw the stands filled. It was crazy, overwhelming. We will be ready for that this year."

Breaching the Gauchos' enormous front line may prove a chore for Florida. Serna, who is 6 feet 9, and 235 pounds, starts alongside 6-10 Jon Pastorek. Greg Somogyi, who is 7-3, comes off the bench.

That trio takes up plenty of space inside. Long Beach missed 26 shots in the paint and opposing teams this season are shooting just 40%.

Serna is a large part of that defensive pressure, and not only because of his size.

"He brings such tension out there, it makes us all focused," says Orlando Johnson, who leads the Gauchos in scoring with an average of 21 points per game.

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Harnessing the "rage" Serna's coach referred to has been the challenge.

Serna had 16 points and nine rebounds against Cal State Northridge in a conference tournament semifinal. At one point, though, Williams said he had to remove him from the game to "regroup for two or three minutes."

After beating Long Beach, Johnson was asked about Pastorek's performance, which included 12 rebounds. Serna, who was also at the podium, chimed in with "He was taking my rebounds."

It sounded like a joke.

"He is such a calm guy off the court," Johnson says. "On it, we do have to bring him down sometimes."

The line between in-the-moment and in-your-face is one Serna gingerly walks.

He was a soccer player first, and lists Real Madrid and Manchester United as his favorite sports teams. Then he gets around to mentioning the Lakers. "I don't play NBA 2K [video game]," Serna says. "I play FIFA."

Soccer, though, became tiresome when people kept demanding to see his birth certificate.

"I was so tall, they thought I had to be too old," Serna says.

Basketball was a better fit, though there were growing pains. His athletic ability screamed for attention. But his personality yelled a few things as well.

"I would let things get into my head," Serna says. "I'd talk back to refs and even my coach. I'd get in disputes with teammates. I was acting like a child. It's all part of growing up. I have learned to channel that fury."

Now he's all the rage in Santa Barbara.

"He is absolutely fierce," Williams says. "That makes him a load to play against."

chris.foster@latimes.com

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