DAVIS — UCSB’s bid for its first Big West Conference Tournament title since 2010 fell short on Friday at UC Davis.
Andy Velasquez scored off an assist by Robert Mejia in the 55th minute and Kristian Heptner added the clinching goal in the 90th minute to give the Aggies a 2-0 win, and the program’s first Big West Tournament championship. UC Davis (13-4-2) also earned the conference”s automatic berth for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“I’m extremely happy with the group,” Aggies coach Dwayne Shaffer said. “I’m proud of them. They’re great soccer players, and they make my job easy.”
On the other side, UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg stared out at the field when the final whistle blew, wondering what had happened to his team that was 11-1-4 in its previous 16 matches.
The Gauchos were outplayed in all three areas of the field. Their back-line defense struggled to keep UC Davis at bay. The Gauchos struggled mightily in midfield, and they had just a handful of quality scoring chances.
The Aggies entered the match having allowed only 12 goals this season, the second fewest in the country. Their defense was outstanding again, which made their 55th minute goal seem like an insurmountable advantage.
“We didn’t do enough,” Vom Steeg said. “We didn’t pass the ball well enough. We didn’t defend well enough, and, ultimately, to be fair, they won midfield. This is a game where it’s about second chances and second balls and battling for balls, and we didn’t do enough.
“I’m not singling out our midfield, but I will say, when you look at it, collectively, they played harder and competed for more balls. Ultimately, this game was about which way the ball was going to go, and we didn’t do enough from a competitive standpoint to win the game.”
UCSB (12-4-4) was outshot, 18-4, with only one on frame.
That came from senior co-captain Noah Billingsley from 16 yards out on the right. Billingsley’s hard right-footed shot in the first half was easily saved by Aggies goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley.
“I’m very disappointed,”Billingsley said. “I think we got better in the second half, but the first half was absolutely not good enough from anybody, me included.
“We’ve got to take a long, hard look at ourselves, because that wasn’t us. Fair credit to Davis, but if we play well, we win this game. We played awful, and they deserved to win this one.”
The Aggies improved to 7-0-1 at home this season.
While UC Davis earned the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, Vom Steeg is convinced the Gauchos have done enough this season to not only get into the NCAA Tournament, but to possibly host a first-round match on Thursday.
“That’s the good news we take out of this, our season will continue,” Vom Steeg said. “I told them after the game that I thought we needed to have a better overall effort. It’s what we will need moving forward.
“We’ve been very good, but today we kind of let the moment get away from us a little bit. I think we will have a better effort in our next game. Across the board, whether it was our midfield or our defending or our front line, it wasn’t good enough to win today on this field.”
Billingsley had a similar message for his teammates when it was over.
“I told the boys, ‘I know it hurts right now, and it should hurt, but we’ll play again on Thursday,’” he said. “We’ve got to remember this game, remember the feeling, and we’ve got to use it as a learning curve and move on.”
Despite being outshot and under constant attack in the first half, the Gauchos didn’t allow a goal — thanks in large part to sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach, who continued his outstanding season with five saves, including three in the first half.
But it all changed in the 55th when the Gauchos turned the ball over in midfield. Mejia played a short ball over the top along the left side to Velasquez, who took one long touch and fired a shot from 12 yards out on the left side that whistled past Roach and inside the back post for a 1-0 Aggie lead.
Vom Steeg warned his team in a pregame meeting on Friday morning how good Davis was at taking advantage of mistakes. The players found out the hard way off the midfield turnover that led to the only goal the Aggies would need.
“Davis is built on not creating offense, but taking advantage of your mistakes,” Vom Steeg said. “That play was exactly what we warned the team about. It happened several times in the first half, but they just didn’t score.”
UCSB will learn its postseason fate when the NCAA holds its selection show on Monday at 10 a.m.