The bigger they are, the louder the thud after they fall.
The smaller but quicker, more energetic and more inspired UCSB men’s basketball team sent a message in bold black ink on Saturday to Irvine and the rest of the Big West Conference: The Big West title is ours.
Enduring a roller coaster season littered with pratfalls and peaks, the preseason favorites to win the Big West refused to roll over and die quietly. Santa Barbara soared back into first place with a convincing 67-51 thrashing of UCI on senior night at the Thunderdome. The 5,014 home faithful cheered seniors B.J. Ward, Mark Hull and the injured Bray Skultety for the last time, all while witnessing UCSB inch closer to a long overdue dream.
“We’re happy for right now, but we’re trying to focus on long-term goals,” Ward said.
One of those long-term goals is to clinch the regular season Big West title outright for the first time in school history. UCSB has played in the Big West for 34 years.
Santa Barbara can make its dream come to life with a sweep on the road at Cal State Fullerton and Riverside on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
Junior guard Nick Jones pumped in 16 points, all in the first half, while helping Santa Barbara leap to a 20-point halftime lead, 38-18. Though Jones squelched the Anteaters with 6-7 shooting including 2-2 buckets from three-point country, the Gaucho defense put the UCI offense in a coma. Irvine shot a hideous 25.9 percent from the floor, hitting only 7-27 shots.
Jones played a big part in UCSB’s tenacious 2-3 zone defense, stealing two balls and snagging five rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Stepping up with more than bragging rights on the line was nothing out of the ordinary for Jones, the 2002 Big West Tournament MVP.
“When Nick gets on a roll, he scores in bunches,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He’s a little bit like blowing up a balloon. When you let him go, you’re not sure which direction he’s going to go. Nick brought tremendous energy.”
The Gauchos (15-12, 12-4 in the Big West) moved a half-game ahead of UCI (18-8, 12-5). Irvine plays only one more conference game before the tournament, a home contest on Saturday against bottom-feeder Long Beach State.
UCSB’s defense went to work immediately on the Anteaters, forcing two consecutive airballs from junior center Adam Parada and senior forward Jordan Harris. Junior guard Branduinn Fullove then took a charge on a driving Harris. Minutes later, Jones swamped UCI freshman guard Jeff Gloger, stealing the ball from the exasperated freshman before hitting a running high-arcing 10-footer.
“We had a really good defensive game plan and it flustered them early,” junior point guard Jacoby Atako said.
Jones nailed a three-point shot over the 7-foot Parada’s outstretched arms with 14:32 remaining in the first half. Less than 20 seconds later, Jones capped an acrobatic steal with a layup for a 10-2 lead.
Both Ward and Hull contributed in their final home games in Gaucho uniforms. Ward zipped in for a layup with 1:48 remaining. The senior also swiped a ball while recording two assists. Hull became only the second Gaucho to join the 1,500-point club after contributing 13 points in his final hurrah at the Thunderdome. Hull now has 1,501 points. Former Gaucho Carrick DeHart scored 1,687 points from 1986-90.
The Gauchos led comfortably throughout the second half, never allowing the Anteaters to come within striking deficit. UCI cut the deficit to 12 points on three different occasions, only to watch UCSB respond.
“We couldn’t put three, four solid possessions together,” UCI Head Coach Pat Douglass said. “We wanted to get the game under 10 and we never could.”
Fullove – prodded and pushed all night by a horde of Anteater defenders including Harris, Mike Hood, Matt Okoro and Stanislav Zuzak – put the stamp on the game with a one-handed slam dunk to put UCSB up 65-46 with 1:36 remaining.
“I got an open look and I was in rhythm,” Fullove said about the dunk. “But I’m so happy about winning. We won the game. That’s all that matters now.”
Fullove bounced back from 1-6 first-half shooting to hit 4-7 shots in the second frame. Fullove’s plethora of moves included a shake-and-bake move to freeze Okoro before nailing a fadeaway rainbow in the junior forward’s face, a slick inside bucket in traffic and a long three-pointer.
“It was a great way for B.J. and I to go out,” Hull said about the seniors’ farewell to the Thunderdome. “I couldn’t have asked for more of my teammates. … By no means is this the end for us. It’s just the beginning.”