The high tide was bound to recede eventually to a shallow ebb.
By the time Utah State finished throttling the UCSB men’s basketball team Thursday night in the Thunderdome 71-48, the Gauchos realized that they ultimately could not compete with Utah State, the #1 mid-major college program in the nation.
“It was one of those nights on the road,” Aggie Head Coach Stew Morrill said. “I told the kids it was one of the best nights on the road. We can feel good about winning. Defense was the key for us, though the offense was very, very solid.”
Though UCSB appeared to be rolling right from the first play of the game involving Big West Player of the Week and senior Aggie forward Shawn Daniels, the tide would turn against the Gauchos. Daniels, immediately double-teamed in the post, threw the ball away looking for well-defended junior guard Tony Brown. Freshman forward Branduinn Fullove then swept through the lane before double pumping a tough shot that skipped off the rim; Fullove smoked the ensuing free throws for a 2-0 lead.
After sophomore forward Mark Hull blitzed through the right lane for a layup, Fullove dropped two more shots at the charity stripe, for a 6-3 lead at 18:37, the Gauchos’ biggest lead of the evening. UCSB’s advantage then quickly evaporated from an Aggie club that effectively chiseled away at the lead, and controlled the tempo of a young Gaucho squad.
“They’re 22-3 and we’re 10-12, and they’re a better basketball team,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They have four seniors starting and one junior. We have three freshmen and one sophomore. They’re more experienced, stronger and better. I think our guys got dejected.”
The referees also allowed the game to revert to a milder form of football with players lunging at each other and bodies constantly being flung across the floor. When junior forward Mike Vukovich grappled the ball away from Aggie senior center Dimitri Jorssen, Jorssen answered by ramming into Vukovich on the Aggies’ next offensive position and steam blew out of his ears. Vukovich, who finished with 10 points, followed with an offensive foul of his own against Jorssen, heating the physicality of the game even further.
“We weren’t tough enough,” said Vukovich, who essentially ended his first half by picking up his second offensive foul with 10:21 and was a nonfactor until the game was decided. “They’re a really good team … they know how to play with each other.”
The Gauchos had no rhythm offensively, clanging up shots and settling for rushed jump shots instead of milking the possession clock for the best possible shot. Santa Barbara shot .366 from the floor.
“We got a little stagnant on offense,” Hull said. “We talked about moving ball on the perimeter and getting it inside, but we didn’t do a good job of that. We didn’t get many stops on defense, either.”
When Daniels scored his first two points of the night to tie the game at 15-15 with 12:55, Santa Barbara never took another lead in the contest. Though he attempted only two field goals in the second half, Daniels was content to hurt the Gauchos by passing out of double teams and luring perimeter defenders to him, opening up the spacious half-court Aggie offense.
“The great thing about Shawn Daniels is that he doesn’t care about shot attempts,” Morrill said. “I thought tonight we moved the ball better than all year long. The kids were really, really unselfish. He doesn’t care how many shots he takes, he just cares about winning.”
The Gauchos now must recover from their 7-5 fragile third-place standing in the Big West, and hope to maintain their competitive edge in the weeks leading up to the conference tournament, and more pertinently, this Saturday at 7 against Riverside.
“Hopefully, we’ll come out with better effort this weekend,” Williams said.