It hasn’t been a pretty season, not by a long shot, but three weeks to play the UCSB men’s basketball is finally putting the pieces together when it is most crucial.
Last night the Gauchos (11-13 overall, 5-7 Big West) blasted Pacific (14-10, 7-6) 67-57 to stretch their winning streak to three for the first time this year. Last time the two teams met, the Tigers embarrassed Santa Barbara 58-36, but this time around UCSB matched their previous total in the first half.
Senior forward Chris Devine, who had 26 points to pass the 1,500 point mark in his illustrious career, said that the win was huge, especially considering how tough Pacific plays, and that it truly shows how much this team has improved in past weeks.
“Yeah it’s big, we knew we had to come out physically,” Devine said. “We knew they were going to come at us physically, I mean obviously we know that from last time. Last time, not only did we not respond physically, but our shots weren’t falling, and when that happens you start to really get into a funk. Tonight we shot it a lot better, which helped.”
The Gauchos, coming over a final minute win versus Cal Poly last Saturday, absolutely dominated the Tigers across the entire stat sheet. The home team not only took 11 more shots, sinking six more field goals than Pacific, but also went a stellar 22-24 at the line versus the Tigers’ 19-30 pace. Additionally, UCSB out-rebounded UOP by a 28-22 margin, had five more assists and half the turnovers.
“We came into the game with three goals: win the turnover war; we won that,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “[Second], win the rebounding war; we won that. [Finally], outscore them from the foul line, and we ended up winning that. We didn’t shoot more than them from the foul line, but we outscored them.”
Santa Barbara’s ball control was absolutely excellent, and they only gave up nine turnovers versus 13 assists. Conversely, Pacific lost the ball 17 times versus dishing out only eight dimes.
“First half of the season, [taking care of the ball] was one of our main problems,” Devine said. “We even had a game with 22 turnovers, and that’s unacceptable. We ran for those, and that’s why we’re in shape. It’s huge for us to have nine turnovers in a game. Our limit is usually around 12, and to get under that is definitely key for us.”
Devine has been outstanding as of late, going 18-31 in his last two games for 55 points. He has also been unbelievable from the charity stripe, having hit his last 18 straight, including 10 last night. Williams said that what he is most happy to see is that Devine is very stoked to be on the court.
“Chris is in a very good rhythm right now, but the best thing regarding Chris is it’s obvious that he’s enjoying playing. I think what he’s enjoying is that the team is getting better, we’re making fewer mistakes [and] it’s more fun to play. He’s in a great personal rhythm, the team’s getting in a better rhythm. I mean, that’s a fun thing, and I’m sure he’s extremely appreciative of all those things being it’s his sixth and final season.”
Devine said that, now that the reality of playing his final season is starting to sink in, he’s just trying to play as hard as he can down the stretch while enjoying himself as much as possible.
“You know what, here’s what it is,” Devine said. “Sometimes, after a while, especially after the better half of a decade, you start to think, ‘Man, I’m just going to be here forever.’ Now, it’s real. Three weeks and that’s really it. For me, I’m going to go every game. I need to cherish these games.”
Also making a huge appearance in the game was junior guard James Powell, who finished with 16 points off 5-9 shooting on the night. Powell has had an up-and-down season after being a prolific shooter for the Gauchos last season, but he said that while his confidence has never waned, it does feel good to take some of the scoring pressure off the rest of the team.
“I’ll tell you, the best feeling about making a couple shots is that Chris got a little extra help,” Powell said. “Chris has been playing like the best player in the conference, which he probably is, but he’s been really playing like it lately. He can’t be the only one stepping up here and contributing, so it feels good to give him a little boost.”
While Powell has always been humble about his play, both Devine and Williams said separately that he is a giant positive force on the team, and even when his shots are falling he works to continually boost the team’s play.
“You know how much it affects people when guys get kind of inward and don’t respond,” Devine said. “They don’t do the things that are necessary to keep your team alive. [Powell] does all those things and more. He’s a very good teammate, not even just average, and I think that’s great for us.”
Also great for Santa Barbara has been the play of the team’s four standout freshmen: center Greg Somogyi, who had seven early points, forward Jaime Serna, who brings a seriously physical presence, and guard Will Brew and guard/forward James Nunnally, whose defense and ball handling have been excellent.
“They’re on real positive upswings in terms of affecting the game when they’re on the floor, whether it’s defense, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s assists to turnovers,” Williams said. “All of those types of things are affecting the game really well. I’m really pleased with the young players’ progress and their development.”
Overall, the team is more upbeat than they’ve been all season, and the positive attitude is well deserved. Williams said that his squad is playing better as a team than they have all season, which is readily apparent courtside, and he simply attributes it to the team’s refusal to keep losing.
“We kind of hit bottom at Fullerton [after blowing a 22 point first half lead on Jan. 10], and we’ve started to raise up out of that. The thing that’s allowed us to is that our effort’s been outstanding. This is five out of six games that we’ve established how hard that we’re going to play.”