After losing three straight games and falling to 2-7, the UCSB men’s basketball team wanted to turn their season around and end the year on a positive note.
Santa Barbara finished December with a bang by crunching Loyola Marymount 85-69 at the Thunderdome. The Gauchos followed up their last win of non-conference play with a come-from-behind Big West opening victory on Jan. 4 over Boise State, 81-75. The win bolstered the team’s current record to 4-7, 1-0 in the Big West Conference.
UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams started three freshmen against LMU for the first time in school history. Redshirt freshman guard Nick Jones paced the UCSB youth movement with a career-high 19 points. Guard Branduinn Fullove punched in 13 points while adding five rebounds and five assists. Point guard Jacoby Atako scored four points, dished out four assists and ripped away two steals in the victory to round out the contributions from the starting youngsters.
LMU led 38-37 at the half, yet the Gauchos countered the Lions’ roar with 60 percent shooting in the second half. Santa Barbara put its jets on during a 15-6 run after the game was tied 55-55 with 10:03 remaining in the second half, ultimately putting LMU away.
“I think we played real well together,” freshman forward Casey Cook said. “We depended on each other. Before, we took selfish shots. Against LMU, we moved the ball well and always made the extra pass. We decided to come out and play real hard on the defensive end and with more intensity. We came out and made LMU play at our level and they had trouble playing with us.”
Junior forward Mike Vukovich drilled in 16 points and pulled down six boards and senior guard LaRon Bryant scored 10 points and had two steals in limited action. Veteran sophomore guard B.J. Ward came off the bench for seven points and four assists and senior forward Juliano Jordani had eight points and five rebounds.
In the Big West opener against Boise State, the Gauchos rallied from a nine-point deficit in the second half to pull off the victory. The Broncos took a 53-44 lead with 15:20 to go before UCSB trimmed the lead. Santa Barbara used a 6-2 run to cut the lead to 55-50, and with 5:33 left remaining in the game the Gauchos erased their deficit when sophomore forward Mark Hull nailed a 20-foot jumper in the right corner to tie the game at 66-66.
UCSB made 6-8 free throws in the closing moments of the game to send BSU packing. Santa Barbara’s Vukovich scored in double-figures for his sixth straight game with a career-high 20 points. Fullove also helped the winning cause by contributing a career-high 16 points and seven assists.
“It’s very exciting and very good for us to win [our first conference game],” Cook said. “It was very important that we won the LMU game and have confidence going into league. We’d like to win the Big West and it has been a goal we’ve been working on the whole season.”
Improved shooting the past two games has led to a resurgence in the team’s fortunes. Before their current two-game winning streak, the Gauchos lost three in a row to USC, St. Mary’s and Riverside. The Gauchos shot a sizzling 52.5 percent against LMU and improved on that mark by smoking a season best 54.9 percent of their shots against the Broncos.
“Playing at home has been a big help for our shooting,” Vukovich said. “We’ve been shooting a lot after practice.”
UCSB faces Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. for their second Big West game of the season.