No Tigers were going to claw out of this hole.
The UCSB men’s basketball team delivered yet another win during its critical stretch of Big West games, this time on Senior Day Saturday at the Thunderdome. Santa Barbara honored its two seniors, forward Juliano Jordani and guard LaDonte King, before the rest of the team scratched out a 73-62 victory against Pacific.
In a physical game marred with 49 fouls, a somber crowd of mostly students filtered into the T-dome to watch the game despite the melancholy in I.V. following a fatal auto accident Friday night. The quiet atmosphere hovered around the building even after the final buzzer sounded, yet not before the Gauchos (13-12, 9-5 in the Big West) took care of the Tigers (15-10, 6-7).
“I’ve never been a part of something of this magnitude as a coach,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “The suspense of not knowing [at game time] who the victims were was tough on the players.”
Redshirt freshman guard Nick Jones paced the Gauchos with 22 points, six rebounds and three steals in 33 minutes of action. The fearsome threesome – sophomore forward Mark Hull, freshman forward Branduinn Fullove, and junior power forward Mike Vukovich -all tallied double figures in points for Santa Barbara at the starting forward positions. Hull, who logged a game-high 36 minutes, scored 16 points and snatched six boards. Fullove pumped in 13 points, grabbed five boards, and passed for three assists. Vukovich poured in 15 points, 10 points resulting from hook shots; he also grabbed seven boards.
Vukovich, who went 12-12 from the field at UOP on Feb. 3, could only muster a 6-10 outing Saturday, a noteworthy .600 from the floor. Vukovich, who missed his first attempt – a forced hook in the right corner at 17:41 – would heat up with the progression of the action.
“I felt real good,” Vukovich said. “I felt I had a chance to make it every time I touched the ball.”
The Gauchos came out roaring from the tip-off, opening the game on a 7-0 spurt. Fullove nailed an awkward jumper, followed by a Jones trey on a looping pass from Vukovich. Jones then stole the ball, and passed to freshman point guard Jacoby Atako, who found a streaking Hull for an easy two points and an early lead.
The Tigers stopped their panting and started getting back into the game behind forward Mike Hahn’s inside bucket, which bolstered an 8-3 UOP run immediately following the Gauchos’ early flurry. Guard Maurice McLemore and Hahn both added four points in the run.
The game continued going back-and-forth in the first half, and Pacific grabbed its first lead 11-10 off a three-pointer by guard Jono Metzger-Jones at the 15:01 mark. Fullove responded with a jumper of his own. Freshman forward Casey Cook aggressively hauled in an offensive board, putting up the shot for a 14-14 tie at 11:03 in the first half.
Hull would give Santa Barbara a lead it would never relinquish, despite constant threats when the forward smoked a three-pointer for a 19-18 lead at the 7:22 mark in the first half. Though UOP tied the game 42-42 after guard Peter Heizer hit a three and dunked the ball at 15:10 in the second half, UCSB quickly picked up where it left off in the first half, never falling behind more than three in the final 3:42 of the contest.
“They seemed to be sticking around,” Hull said. “We were never able to pull away. But during crunch time we were able to make our free throws and extend our lead at the end.”
The Gauchos created some breathing room in the first half when Vukovich got hot and sank two straight hooks, and Jones slipped in for two to give UCSB a 26-18 lead. Jones led Santa Barbara at halftime with 11 points.
“The last time we played on national TV, I had a bad ankle [from a pre-game injury],” Jones said. “So I was just trying to stay healthy during shoot-around. When I got through it … I was just really glad to be at full strength.”
Despite the strong offensive performances from the starters, Jordani was a key figure on and off the floor for the Gauchos by carrying his emotion and intensity to the rest of the team.
“I tell you, the guy who I thought really took over the team today was Juliano,” Williams said. “He talked during the shoot-around, when we got out on the floor. I was really proud of him for stepping up and making sure that these guys were ready to play today.”
With the last home victory under their belts, the Gauchos move above .500 for the first time this season.
“We’ve won eight of our last nine and have played some pretty darn good basketball, finding ways to win,” Williams said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball. It’s not like we’re out there playing a perfect game. But what we’re doing is competing at a pretty darn high level now, and I’m pleased with that.”