If the holiday season is the time for giving, then the UCSB men’s basketball team has shown no charity, sweeping victories away from opponents.
Last Saturday evening at the Thunderdome it was St. Mary’s turn to bear the brunt of the Gauchos’ attack. Santa Barbara surged ahead of the Gaels 62-51 after using a 22-2 run midway through the second half to remain undefeated at home.
The Gauchos also enjoyed their best shooting performance of the season, connecting on 54.5% of their shots while limiting St. Mary’s to 33% in the decisive second half. Yet it was UCSB’s staunch zone press and backcourt pressure that led to the outstanding shooting percentage.
The insertion of point guards sophomore Jacoby Atako and junior B.J. Ward into the backcourt, as well as moving junior forward Mark Hull to the power forward position on the floor, were critical coaching maneuvers in the second frame. When the Gauchos got small, they began to match up better with the Gaels’ plethora of strong two-guards.
“I thought our quickness and full-court press obviously turned the game around,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “That’s two games in a row that Jacoby and B.J. playing together has been a really good combination … as well as they’ve played the last two games, they’re going to get more minutes together.”
Atako and Ward formed the core of the zone press when they came in at 13:50 in the second half, and the deadly duo went to work. Just before Ward checked in, SMC’s freshman point guard Ryan Nelson connected on a fast-break layup to make the score 40-28 and give the Gaels their largest advantage of the night.
“When it was 40-28, I thought we had a problem here,” Williams said. “We did have a problem.”
Atako stroked two free throws to begin the 22-2 run at 13:20. After layups by Hull and senior forward Mike Vukovich, junior Gaels guard Samuel Saint-Jean hit two free throws, the only two points during SMC’s drought.
Hull then hit the first three of the game for UCSB at 10:50 to pull the Gauchos within five. Atako leapt for a missed Gaels shot and hit Vukovich with a slicing pass on the fast break. Ward made a layup off a Vukovich assist to pull Santa Barbara within one with 8:50 to play.
Seconds later, the Gauchos’ defense rose again, forcing a backcourt violation on St. Mary’s to get the T-dome roaring vociferously again. Atako then spotted up to smoke a gorgeous shot from downtown to give UCSB the lead for good at 8:15, 44-42.
Sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove completed the run with a 10-foot, one-handed, pull-up jumper at 6:00 to push the Gauchos up 50-42.
Ward went to the bench at 5:03 to a complimentary ovation, and the damage was done. Atako and Ward, just as in the BYU victory, were the keys to the win.
“When we’re both in there, we can bring a lot of quickness and aggressiveness,” Ward said. “I think at the offensive end – having two point guards out there – we both know the plays. It is key, too, that we know what we’re doing on offense when we’re out there. So offense and defense are important.”
Santa Barbara was not running, gunning and stuffing the Gaels all night, however. SMC played the Gauchos with a tough, aggressive half-court defense. The perimeter defense was particularly stringent, yet UCSB found cutters underneath the basket for easy buckets to offset the nearly non-existent three-point threat.
“I thought [SMC] really got out and defended us. I thought they defended us for the whole game, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “They put a great effort on the floor defensively. They’re very physical, they got out and denied, and we weren’t at our best in the first half.”
First year St. Mary’s Head Coach Randy Bennett, taking the reins of a team that won only two games last season, was pleased with the toughness his squad displayed.
“We’ve become consistently competitive in every game, and I think we’ve proved we could do that,” he said. “The next step is to win games like this.”