Playing with fire and passion can take a team to great heights. Yet there are boundaries every team must overcome to take its game to the next level.
The UCSB men’s basketball team came out with rousing intensity to a surging crowd of 4,904 fans, only to fall just short in its last-minute comeback, bowing down to Big West rival Long Beach State, 76-75 Thursday night in the Thunderdome. The defeat is the second in a row for Santa Barbara, after coming out victorious in its first two conference games.
The Gauchos’ freshman guard Branduinn Fullove, who continually attacked the 49ers by driving to the key en route to 15 points, had a chance to tie the game at 76 with 0:00 on the clock. Fullove calmly sank the first two free throws, rolling the first one in and swishing the next. But the freshman guard did not put enough arc into his third free throw. The ball hit the front iron as if it were about to creep into the net on the next bounce, but the it hit the rim again, falling short on the floor. The crowd, in a jittery mood as Fullove shot his game-ending free throws, deflated as soon as the ball began to descend in defeat.
But the problems for UCSB came well before Fullove even stepped up to the line. The serious problems for the Gauchos came in the second half, after starting the game with exuberance.
Santa Barbara missed 11 of 25 free throws for a .560 average over the course of the entire game. In the second half, UCSB shot .406 from the field, connecting on only 13-32 shots. Sophomore forward Mark Hull, who exploded in the first half with 16 points, didn’t show up at all in the second half, while the Beach limited Hull to three missed shots. The Gauchos didn’t attack the basket with the same zeal as earlier in the game, and they did not respond well to the defensive adjustments the 49ers threw at them. The defense also could not control senior guard Ramel Lloyd, a scoring machine from the Bronx, who continually burned the Gauchos all night.
"We were moving the ball and breaking down the zone in the first half," redshirt freshman guard Nick Jones said. "We were shutting down [Travis] Reed. But Lloyd went off. In the second half we broke down offensively. We let them rush our shots."
UCSB played solid, fundamentally strong basketball in the first half. Ball distribution and passing was a sign of a patient, attacking team. Seven players had at least one assist after the first twenty minutes of play, with Fullove and freshman guard Jacoby Atako both dishing out four assists. And the Gauchos made many big shots, especially three huge downtown bombs from Hull.
The Gauchos won the tip-off, with junior forward Mike Vukovich getting the tip to Fullove, who later found Vukovich again under the basket for a dunk and foul. Vukovich set the defensive tone down in the paint with an early block on junior center Travis Reed two possessions later; UCSB held Long Beach’s top big man to two points and Reed was largely ineffective in creating anything offensively. Fullove smoked a three for an early 8-5 lead, and with 12:00 on the clock; Hull hit two straight threes for a 20-14 lead.
Vukovich helped pump the Gaucho Locos by diving for balls, dunking on 49ers, taking charges and disrupting order in Long Beach’s game plan. When Vukovich slammed 49er forward Kevin Roberts on a hard foul, it was a sequence that seemed to tell Long Beach that "this is our house, and you can’t waltz in here without a battle."
"He made some great moves down low, and he was sticking it to them," Jones said. "He was too big for them to guard down low. We need him as a force down low to open up our outside game."
But the play that really got the crowd in a frenzy was Hull posterizing senior forward Grant Stone with a huge dunk at 6:23 for a 27-21 lead in the first half. Vukovich made a layup at the halftime buzzer, after a scramble for the ball landed in his hands for a 41-37 lead.
The second half was a different story, as Long Beach State countered UCSB with tenacious man-to-man coverage that resulted in more long jump shots than layups. Lloyd, who scored 17 points in the first half alone, was a big defensive problem for Santa Barbara, finishing with 27 points, including four to five treys. Every time the Gauchos made a hustle play, they threw it away with a costly turnover or miss on the front end of one-on-one way too often.
The result for all that hard work was ultimately plagued by glaring holes in the vital execution of the game plan. The result for fighting hard for every second of the forty-minute battle was a demoralizing one-point loss.
"If we made our free throws, we wouldn’t be standing here," Head Coach Bob Williams said. "We’d be talking about a different game."