This is what it’s all about. In a nationally televised game on ESPNU, the UCSB men’s basketball team will host visiting Long Beach State in the Thunderdome Saturday night in what is anticipated to be one of the biggest games of the year.
“It will be a great environment,” senior guard Orlando Johnson said. “We love playing at home when the crowd comes out and supports us.”
The Gauchos (9-6 overall, 4-1 Big West) will look to win its third straight game, after a 69-61 victory over Cal State Northridge (5-11, 2-2-6) Thursday night. Although it was not always pretty, as UCSB gave up 21 offensive rebounds and had 18 turnovers, the Gauchos were able to beat the Matadors by limiting them to 33.3 percent shooting on the night.
“I thought it was an uninspired performance,” Head Coach Bob Williams said.
The team knows it will need to turn in a better performance if it is to contend with first place Long Beach.
“We didn’t assert ourselves energy-wise tonight,” Williams said. “Not one facet of what we did tonight will be good enough when we play Long Beach …We will be ready and play much more inspired on Saturday night than we did tonight.”
Long Beach (13-6, 6-0) is currently first in the Big West and ranked No. 11 in the mid-major poll. The 49ers are coming off a 78-69 win on the road at Cal Poly on Thursday night. A team that thrives on a fast-paced dynamic offense, Long Beach State leads the Big West in scoring offense (74.4 points per game), scoring margin of victory (14 per game), and field goal percentage (47.7 percent).
“You have to slow them down, they are by far the best transition offensive team,” Williams said of the 49ers. “They get out and fly offensively. We will have to contain [Casper] Ware — he is a one man wrecking crew — and keep them off the boards.”
Ware, the senior Long Beach point guard who joined the Gauchos’ Johnson on the Wooden Award Preseason Top-50 list, ranks third in the Big West with 16.4 points per game. Long Beach senior forward T.J. Robinson and senior guard Larry Anderson rank 10th and 8th in the conference in scoring, with 14.7 and 12.6 points per game, respectively. Robinson leads the conference in rebounds with 10.3 per game.
“They are a really good team, there is no doubt about it,” Williams said. “They get pretty fired up to play us. The taste of what happened in the Big West championships against us is something that they carry in their mouth. … We are going to have to fight that fire and beat their intensity.”
The 49ers gained national notoriety for its amazingly tough nonconference schedule. At one time, Long Beach’s RPI (Rating Percentage Index, a measure of strength of schedule) was No. 1 in the country, after the veteran squad beat then No. 9 Pittsburgh and No. 14 Xavier, and played other nationally ranked squads to close decisions.
“They play the toughest schedule they can get,” Williams said. “[Long Beach Head Coach Dan Monson] feels it makes his team battle tested, and is a great way to prepare them for the Big West.”
The matchup at Long Beach may be even more important, given the Gauchos upcoming schedule. After facing the 49ers tomorrow night, UCSB plays seven of its next eight games on the road, including four straight away from the Thunderdome.
“Those seven of eight games on the road is a daunting task,” Williams said. “We just have to focus and take care of business at home first.”
UCSB hopes to capitalize on its home court advantage against Long Beach. The Gauchos are 6-2 at home this season, having only narrowly lost to No. 16 San Diego State in overtime and No. 14 UNLV in double overtime. With national television cameras in the Thunderdome, a crowded and rowdy student section is expected.
“Some of the best crowds we have ever had have been at home this year,” Williams said. “It really pushes us on.”
In the win over Northridge, both teams played zone defense the entire game, with the Matadors applying full-court pressure. Although CSUN leads the conference in steals per game, UCSB came out on top in all of the “hustle” categories, recording more rebounds, blocks and steals.
Despite taking seven fewer shots than CSUN in the first half, UCSB entered the locker room with a 31-22 advantage. The Gauchos came out slow at the onset of the second half, and turnovers allowed the Matadors to run off an 11-0 run to take a 33-31 lead with 17 minutes remaining, Northridge’s first lead of the game. At that point, coach Williams had seen enough, and decided to sub in a fresh five off the bench.
“I think that was the first time this year that I have [subbed in] five new,” Williams said. “There was just an energy on the floor that had to change. The great thing is that nobody hung their head, and they all played better when they went back in.”
UCSB rallied and — behind a 13-0 run of their own — was able to stretch its lead to 57-40 with 6:30 to play. Unable to close out the Matadors UCSB once again let up on the gas, allowing CSUN to hang around. The Matadors got as close as seven with just over a minute left to play, but the Gauchos were able to close it out 69-61.
Johnson, who was recently named to the Midseason Top 25 for the Wooden award, led UCSB with a game-high 21 points, and senior guard James Nunnally added 16. Sophomore forward Keegan Hornbuckle tallied seven points to go with a game-high five steals, and senior center Greg Somogyi recorded a game-high 10 rebounds and added two blocks.
“Coach talks about being a spark off the bench, and I tried to do that for us tonight,” Somogyi said.
Tip-off for Saturday’s game against Long Beach is set for 8 p.m. in the Thunderdome.