It’s been seen time and time again in the sporting world: The quickest way for a struggling team to turn things around is by jumping on the back of a top player who has fully begun refusing to lose. Luckily for the UCSB men’s basketball team, senior forward Chris Devine has begun to take over. Saturday night he exploded for a career high of 29 points off of 10-16 shooting in a masterful performance against Cal Poly. Thanks to Devine, the recently-hot Gauchos snagged the 68-66 win in the final seconds.
“Winning feels tremendous,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “You know, we needed it. It was a death struggle game. We had to get a phenomenal performance out of a sixth-year senior who is playing the best basketball of his career now.”
Devine led the only seven Gauchos – including four freshmen – to tally points in the all-important battle of two squads fighting to keep their Big West Tournament hopes alive. Aside from his stellar shooting from the field, Devine went 8-9 from the charity stripe, including the final two to give Santa Barbara a buzzer-beating win. Devine mentioned that extra shooting practice has him feeling smoother than he ever has.
“I’ve been shooting a lot on my own just to get that feeling down,” Devine said. “I’m letting it go without thinking. In the past I’ve always kind of herky-jerked it. I’ve been shooting 200 [free throws] every morning to get that rotation down and that rhythm down. I was feeling pretty good. I was feeling that if I got any daylight I was going to put it up.”
Holding the ball for the final possession was freshman guard Will Brew, who drove the lane hard and leapt for the rim. Drawing a trio of Mustang forwards with an airborne pump-fake, Brew cleanly dished the rock back to a closing Devine, who attacked the basket and drew the winning free throws. Devine said after the game that he wanted to be the one with the chance to grab the win.
“Actually, I was [hoping to get the ball],” Devine said. “I’ve never been in that situation where I’m the guy taking the shot at the end of the game, I really haven’t. I went into the huddle at the last time out thinking to myself, ‘Man, I really want this. I want this one,’ you know what I mean?”
Assisting Devine on his prodigious night was a quartet of freshmen that truly showed how far they have come in their development. Brew and forwards James Nunnally, Jaime Serna and center Greg Somogyi all combined for about half of Santa Barbara’s total production – 31 of 68 points, 19 of 40 rebounds and 7 of 15 assists in the game. Brew looked more comfortable and controlled running the point than he ever has, and his defense was vicious. He attributed his play to his game approach.
“Coach has really been telling me to start becoming a leader, and I just wanted to lead by example,” Brew said. “Just getting on the floor, taking charges, doing whatever I can to make the team better is what I want to do best. I just want to work hard and do as much as I can for the team because I really appreciate what everybody else is doing.”
Brew wasn’t the only bulldog on defense. Nunnally worked the inside-out game hard in the two-three zone UCSB ran for most of the game. With only a pair of guards on the perimeter, Nunnally’s work on the edge was a major contributor to limiting the normally hot three-point shooting Mustang team to only an 8-21 pace from three-point land. Of course, his biggest contributions were at the end of the game, sending a dime to junior guard Paul Roemer who tied things up at 66-66, as well as snagging an unbelievable steal with 25 seconds left that gave UCSB the final possession. Nunnally said that he simply saw an opportunity to snag possession and went for it.
“I saw the big man [forward Titus Shelton] with the ball; he was really loose and didn’t know where he wanted to go,” Nunnally said. “I saw [guard Lorenzo] Keeler coming over to come get the ball, so I went to go deny him and got a hand on it, got the steal and saved it to Jaime.”
Williams said he was very happy with his team’s perimeter play.
“A couple of those shots Chaz [Thomas, who led Cal Poly with 17 points off 70 percent shooting] hit were legit 25-footers,” Williams said. “They were pretty deep. The sides of our zone bothered them in the first half, and it bothered them a little bit in the second half. The last couple possessions it bothered them because it brought the guards all the way out and scrambled them.”
The win was huge for a Gaucho team that has finally won a pair of games in a row in Big West play, and was even more satisfying thanks to a 9-0 UCSB run in the final four minutes of the first half that tied things up at 29 all. Although Keeler hit a last-second three to give Cal Poly a 32-29 advantage at the break, Santa Barbara had all the momentum it needed to storm to the finish. Devine said that the boost is exactly what his team needed to help make a run in their final seven games.
“It’s big. I mean, you’ve got to win at home anytime, obviously, but now with six of our last seven at home it’s even more important,” Devine said. “You know what else is big is to win a game 68-66. When it’s coming down at the end and you’ve really got to fight to get the stop, that’s huge for us, especially with how young we are. It feels like with this team [losing close games early in the season] was sort of to be expected with how young we were. I [thought that] to finish games, clutch games, when you’ve got four freshmen playing big time minutes, is huge.”