Some match-ups are mediocre, and others are real barn-burners. This year, the UCSB men’s basketball team has experienced a lot of both. But having freshman guard James Nunnally blast a three with two players in his face, capping off a 20 point performance, on Senior Night in front of 3,000 court-rushing fans to propel a team that was formerly 2-7 in conference and completely written off into a fourth place finish and a bye in the Big West tournament in one of the most improbable runs in school history? That’s a game.
“We talked about it in the locker room: sometimes you’ve got to get a little lucky,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We’ve been beat six times in the 11 years I’ve been here on buzzer beaters by Long Beach at Long Beach. Six times where we’ve had big leads and they whittle it back … [Assistant Athletic Director] Bill Mahoney said it right, we owed them one.”
Saturday night the Gauchos (8-8 Big West, 15-14 overall) toppled Long Beach State (10-6, 15-14) 76-75, overcoming a six-point deficit in the final four minutes. With 1:24 to play, Nunnally got to the line and drained a pair of free throws to tie the match at 69-69. After a 49er field goal, Santa Barbara controlled possession down to the :36 mark, where senior forward Chris Devine lost the handle to Long Beach, forcing a foul. LBSU guard Casper Ware only hit one of his two free throws, allowing a quick layup from junior forward Jesse Byrd off the dish from sophomore guard Jordan Weiner to pull UCSB within one at 71-72 with 20 seconds to play. The Gauchos fouled again, and once again the LBSU player only made one of two attempts at the charity stripe. Down by two, Nunnally blew through the 49er defense to get to the rack and knot things at 73-73 with just seven seconds left.
“I think he [Nunnally] has really good confidence,” Williams said. “I think he’s a very calm kid. I don’t think that he gets rattled too much. … He’s tough to handle because he is a good free throw shooter. He’s a nice 6’5″ athlete, and he has the ability to get to the rim and create a shot, that mid-range game he’s pretty good at.”
However, on the inbounds, freshman guard Will Brew immediately fouled, thinking that the Gauchos were still down. After hearing the explosion of cries from the UCSB bench, Brew looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief. Brew calmed down quickly, but Williams said that the slip-up was from Brew being too concerned with getting an immediate foul.
“I’d say he was probably in a daze [after the foul],” Williams said. “You know, it’s not the type of highlight that you like. He thought we were down a point. We had talked, and [said] if we’re down it’s an immediate foul.”
After Long Beach made their free throws, Brew took the inbounds pass with four seconds left and rushed down to the right side of the court, pointing at Nunnally to swing behind him. Nunnally wrapped around from the right corner for the handoff, and burst to the top of the key, firing a dead-on swish with four hands in his face as the buzzer sounded. Nunnally, who had 17 points in the second half, had five points in the final seven seconds.
“He’s been playing at a pretty high level,” Williams said. “His confidence level’s great. We missed several free throws to keep us at bay when we had an opportunity to really close it, and Nunnally steps up, drills them both and then hits two big threes down the stretch.”
The game was far from clean, with 19 turnovers and 24 fouls from the Gauchos against Long Beach’s 21 turnovers and 23 fouls. Yet after a sloppy first half, Santa Barbara locked things down in the second, with only six turnovers versus 10 assists and a ridiculous nine steals in the second period.
“We won the turnover battle that second half, which was crucial for us,” Williams said. “The number six is written in the locker room, and when the team left, I said that if we [have] six or less [turnovers in the second half], I think we can win this game. We have to take great care of the ball and we have to play our rear ends off to have a chance with people, and our guys understand that.”
The win ends a run in which UCSB has been 6-1 in the last seven games, which is the best record in the conference. Previously, Santa Barbara has sat at 2-7 in the Big West and couldn’t put a game together. But with the Big West Tournament on the line, the Gauchos exploded to finish the regular season.
“They feel pretty proud of themselves that we were 2-7 and given up for dead, and they have fought their way back to be 8-8 and above .500 on the year,” Williams said. “It takes a gutty performance out of a group of kids to battle from 2-7 and get yourself back up to 8-8.
“We didn’t dodge a bullet, we dodged a mortar shell when were 2-7 to end up 8-8. A bullet’s way too small.”
It was the perfect ending for the Gaucho seniors’ Thunderdome careers. Devine, the team’s scoring leader, had 15 points, five boards and three steals to end his illustrious six-year tenure at Santa Barbara. Devine is now only the fourth player in UCSB history to finish above .500 in all four of his seasons. Guard D.J. Posley also had a quality night running the point, finishing with seven dimes. Meanwhile, the Gauchos’ third senior Nick Quick, who was sidelined with an MCL tear, celebrated the win by heaving his crutches across the court and banging the bench chairs together.
“It’s perfect for us,” Williams said. “Did you see the crowd? I mean, you’re a senior at this place. You’re D.J. and Chris Devine, and your last memory of playing here is that crowd swarming the floor and the last second shot. It could not have been a better finish to a season, and a better finish to Chris Devine’s career, and just to be part of that is a great memory for them.”
Williams said that the momentum gained from Santa Barbara’s recent hot streak is exactly what they need to make a run in the Big West tourney. However, with teams in the league starting to pay them more attention, he said that his squad needs to remember to come out and ball.
“To not have played a really good game and find a way to win is huge for this group,” Williams said. “It keeps us with a good momentum going in [to the tournament]. Getting the bye is a nice reward for that, and I’m happy for the group. Now it’s a whole new season. Is it a high? Yes. Will it make any difference on Thursday? Probably not. You’re going to have to show up and play. It’s not like this tidal wave that we’re going to roll in. But people in the league know about us, there’s conversation about us. In the last seven games of league, we have the best record. It’s a great effort for this group of kids, and it was fun to watch the crowd get involved just like they did.”