Just as they were about to tear the Trojans off and jostle them down on the bed in front of a televised audience, a leak sprung through the Gauchos’ prophylactic defense.
The UCSB men’s basketball nearly upset previously ranked #23 USC Monday evening at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, before Trojan swingman David Bluthenthal found his outside touch in the second half and nailed 5-7 three-point shots en route to 17 second-half points and a game-high 19 points.
Though Santa Barbara eventually succumbed 73-62 to their heavily favored opponent, the Gauchos showed no signs of lying down.
UCSB was not afraid to bang in the paint early, as senior centers Adama Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich quickly made their presence felt. Ndiaye tipped in a missed shot for the first bucket of the contest and on the next possession pump-faked the Trojan defense to earn a trip to the line. Vukovich added an inside bucket soon after and Ndiaye hit a 12-foot jumper for an 8-4 lead.
Junior forward Mark Hull then caught fire for UCSB, burying 3-4 from behind the arc in the first half and leading all scorers with 13 points in the opening frame. Hull finished with 17 points.
Behind Hull’s hot hand, the Gauchos showed their mettle and opened up a 12-point lead at the 11:52 mark in the first half. Hull then buried the second of his three treys with 11:22 to put UCSB up 22-10.
Within the next five and a half minutes, Hull stroked his third bullet from downtown. Most important for Santa Barbara’s early success was the patience and execution on offense. The Gauchos also played opportunistic defense that led to steals and bad shots by USC.
USC appeared to capture the momentum from Santa Barbara when senior forward Sam Clancy emphatically slam-dunked the ball to cap a 10-0 Trojan run and give his squad its first lead of the game at 29-28 with 2:04 in the opening half.
After two Ndiaye free throws, the Trojans sophomore guard Desmon Farmer hit a layup in the closing moments of the half for a 31-30 lead heading to the locker room.
Sophomore floor general Jacoby Atako steadied the Gauchos’ ship with solid point guard play and good decision making through the contest. Sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove came alive in the second half to deliver 14 points, including drilling 4-8 from downtown.
Ndiaye and Vukovich played tough down low and Ndiaye muscled down a game-high 13 rebounds. Ndiaye chipped in nine points and Vukovich scored five. Sophomores Casey Cook, B.J. Ward, Bryan Whitehead and Nick Jones all played well off the bench for UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams.
In the second half, Santa Barbara showed no signs of backing down despite scoring only two points in the last 7:55 of the first half and going 0-10 from the floor in that same span.
After Fullove opened the second-half scoring with a 22-foot three with the clock winding down for a 39-36 lead, UCSB extended its lead to eight points when Atako schooled USC senior pointman Brandon Granville on a short jumper for a 44-36 lead.
A few plays later, Bluthenthal began to heat up and hit his first three at the 11:35 mark. Bluthenthal went off for the remainder of the game, hitting three after crushing three. His trey with 2:45 left for a 65-59 lead dashed UCSB’s hope for a second consecutive road victory, and the Trojans made enough free throws in the closing moments to stymie the Gauchos’ final push.