The Gauchos slogan for the 2003 season should be “Showdown on Saturday.”
After pasting Long Beach State 70-46 before a rocking Thunderdome crowd on Thursday night, the UCSB men’s basketball team positioned itself for a chance to achieve something that no Gaucho squad has ever attained: a regular season Big West Championship.
Santa Barbara needed to take care of immediate business with the 49ers. After LBSU jumped ahead to a 6-0 lead on two three-point swishes from freshman guard Jibril Hodges, the Gauchos clicked into gear. UCSB sent Hodges to the bench early with two quick fouls and bolted to a 17-3 run. Santa Barbara stormed into halftime with a 40-24 lead on a 10-2 run, capped by junior guard Branduinn Fullove’s floating one-handed leaning shot with 8.2 seconds left.
Santa Barbara never looked back Thursday and secured revenge from a 67-66 Feb. 1 loss at The Pyramid against the Niners. LBSU fell to 0-12 on the road this year.
“I thought we were pretty alive,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Long Beach wasn’t quite the same team as they were down there.”
After UCSB extended the lead 47-27 on sophomore forward Casey Cook’s layup in the second half, Long Beach made the affair interesting. A 12-0 Niner run, consisting entirely of layups, cut the lead 47-39.
“That spurt in the second half was obviously our best part of the game,” LBSU Head Coach Larry Reynolds said.
Fullove came to the Gauchos’ rescue with an 18-foot rainbow fadeaway, halting the run.
“They were getting on a run, and it was a challenge for us to tighten our defense and execute on offense,” Fullove said.
UCSB (14-12, 11-4 in the Big West) regained composure and pounded the ball against the 49ers (5-19, 4-11) alternating into a more aggressive zone defense.
“We changed the defense and it got us running around and got our energy up again,” junior forward Bryan Whitehead said.
Whitehead inspired the charge with an offensive rebound, and two back-to-back post baskets and a free throw, pushing the lead 56-40.
“Bryan hit a big bucket,” Williams said. “Bryan made perhaps his best power move of the season and followed that up with a reverse layup and foul.
“I liked how we kept our composure and we got back into the game almost immediately,” Williams said.
Every player for UCSB grabbed at least one rebound, and nine players scored five plus points. The Gauchos out-rebounded LBSU 37-21.
The season hangs on a balance with Saturday’s game looming large. Not only will the game be the last at home for senior forward Mark Hull and senior guard B.J. Ward, but a chance to win the Big West may be on the line. Irvine defeated Cal Poly at Mott Gym 68-62 later on Thursday night. UCI (17-7, 11-4) remains a half game ahead of UCSB in the Big West standings.
“We’ve got a game that potentially decides the Big West Championship at our house on Saturday night,” Williams said. “I’m asking for this community to show up and show up in a big way and have 6,000 people here. We need a sellout to support these kids and help put us over the hump.
“The environment that I’ve heard about since I’ve been here is talking about UNLV and talking about those games when this place was rocking. You know what? We’re playing for a league championship and this place needs to be rocking like that environment.”