Coming off of a close win over UC Riverside Thursday, the UCSB men’s basketball team needed a win over Cal State Fullerton Saturday to move into first place in the Big West. Thanks to a strong defensive first half and stellar shooting, the team did just that, winning 80-65.
“It feels good to be able to finish a game the way we did tonight,” sophomore guard Michael Bryson said. “We really tried to make sure we got a good shot every possession.”
With the win, the Gauchos are now tied for first with UC Irvine, who they play this Thursday, with a record of 18-7 overall and 9-3 in the Big West. The Titans fell to 9-17 overall and 4-8 in the Big West, dropping them to seventh place in the conference.
Playing with good energy from the opening tip, UCSB stifled Fullerton’s offense, holding the Titans to just 27.3 percent shooting in the first half.
Thanks to the aggressiveness of junior guard Zalmico Harmon, the Gauchos got out to a quick double-digit lead. Harmon knocked down a pair of threes and matched Fullerton’s entire team with 10 points just eight minutes into the game.
“Anytime we can get a win like that in a fashion where everybody’s playing well, hustling and executing, it’s always a great feeling,” Harmon said.
After the Gauchos extended their lead to 27-10, it was smooth sailing. The Titans went on a run to cut the deficit to 32-21, but with less than 30 seconds left in the half, Harmon found sophomore forward Taran Brown for a two-hand facial dunk, sending UCSB to the half with the momentum.
“It’s always exciting to get a dunk because you get the crowd into it and you get your teammates all going crazy on the bench,” junior center Alan Williams said. “It’s an opportunity to increase your level of energy and it’s on [your teammates] to match that.”
As he has all year, Williams dominated both offensively and defensively. From the opening minutes, the big man played with an extra bounce in his step, making it look easy on his way to a 22-point, 18-rebound double-double on 8-11 shooting.
The Titans fought back for the entire second half, led by guard Michael Williams. The senior single-handedly kept his team in the game, scoring a game-high 29 points and knocking down 5-10 from three-point range.
The Gauchos always found an answer, however. Big Al gobbled up every rebound he could reach in the second half, and a one-hand highlight dunk off a loose ball pushed UCSB’s lead back up to 46-29 with just under 13 minutes remaining.
With just four minutes to go, a three-pointer by Michael Williams cut the Gauchos’ lead to 63-54. The next time down the court, Bryson answered with another UCSB dunk, pushing the lead back up to 11 and dismantling any hope of a Titan comeback. Santa Barbara closed out the final minutes by knocking down free throws on their way to an 80-65 win.
“It got a little closer [in the second half] but it was nice not to have to fight until the bitter end,” Bryson said. “We’re on a good track right now.”
Harmon ended the night with 20 points and 10 assists while committing zero turnovers. In his last nine games, he has accumulated 49 assists and just three turnovers.
“There’s no way we’ve had a player go through a stretch like this since I’ve been here,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He’s been amazing and has just gotten better and more confident as the season’s gone on. He’s absolutely a stud and he’s getting better.”
UCSB returns to the road for a first-place showdown against UC Irvine this Thursday.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of Feb. 24th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Margarita Baliyan of the Daily Nexus.