Now nobody can doubt the heart of this team.

The UCSB men’s basketball team overcame a 12-point deficit against defending Mountain West Champion Brigham Young University and came out on top in what Head Coach Bob Williams considered the biggest non-conference victory in his career at Santa Barbara.

Junior forward Mark Hull pumped in 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to propel the Gauchos past a formidable BYU squad 68-58 before a raucous Thunderdome crowd of 3,608 on Wednesday night. Although UCSB only connected on 10 field goals in the second half, Santa Barbara’s stalwart defense was the true catalyst in constricting the Cougars to shoot a wretched 23 percent clip in the final frame.

“I thought our quickness was the difference in the second half,” Williams said. “It was even the difference in the last six, seven minutes of the first half when we went to it. And it kind of turned a little bit when I went to the small lineup and we got a lot quicker and we put more pressure on them and stayed matched-up.”

The insertion of junior point guard B.J. Ward to form that smaller, but quicker and more defensively alert, backcourt with sophomore pointman Jacoby Atako in the second half proved to be a key factor in the contest. Ward finished with nine points, four assists, three steals and no turnovers while showcasing an outstanding defensive intensity in a tremendous all-around effort.

“[The night before our game], I was watching some college basketball games, and I was just focusing on defense when I got here,” Ward said. “I just went to bed last night focusing on defense thinking the rest of it will come: the offense will come, everything else will come: defense is defense.”

The turning point of the game, however, might well have occurred when BYU junior guard Travis Hansen and Gaucho sophomore guard Nick Jones started shoving each other with 6:14 remaining.

BYU sophomore forward Mark Bigelow just connected a layup and a chance to complete a three-point play after Jones fouled him. The referees noticed Jones pushing Hansen away, but quickly acknowledged that Hansen provoked the incident and handed a technical to the Orem, Utah product.

“Bigelow got fouled and Hansen nudged me,” Jones said. “Hansen initiated the first contact. … He was trying to take over our home court and trying to make us back down. It was our house and he was trying to take over. And basically, we held our own. His plan backfired and it just got us going. He didn’t even shake my hand at the end of the game: that’s the type of player he is.”

Hansen also had his own take on the emotional turn of events with Jones.

“[Jones] said something, I said something and he pushed me,” Hansen said.

“Home court advantage, baby. You got to love it, man,” Hansen said when asked why he was slapped with a technical and Jones was not.

Instead of going up by five points, the Cougars were only up by three. Sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove nailed both technical free throws and Bigelow hit the free throw. Coincidentally, the three-point play constituted Bigelow’s only points in the second half. Bigelow erupted for 12 on 4-6 treys by halftime. He did not even attempt a shot from downtown in the final 20 minutes, and was a non-factor down in crunch time.

Following the technical foul, Ward returned to the game. After Atako calmly stroked two free throws to pull UCSB within one at 54-53 with 4:58 to go, Ward stole the ball for one of his two clutch steals in the second half.

“They weren’t even looking for me,” Ward said. “I just backed up off their point guard when he passed the ball, right when [the post player] turned his head and had the ball below his waist, it was mine. I just took it.”

Williams called a timeout to calm his troops with 4:14. Though the play didn’t materialize into a bucket on the other end, Ward’s steal and Jones’ fierce competitiveness and defensive fire instilled a confidence into each of the players for the Gauchos.

After the timeout, Jones’ jumper went in and out. At the other end, BYU forward Eric Nielsen coughed the ball out of bounds, one of 17 Cougar turnovers. Hull then roared through the right baseline for a layup and a 55-54 lead and the Gauchos never looked back.

“It started out I was missing my shots early, so I wanted to take it to the hole and maybe get to the foul line and come out in the second half especially,” Hull said. “And once I did that I realized I could keep doing it … I was able to get a quick step on him and get by [the defender].”

Ward went 4-4 at the free throw line to keep BYU at bay in the final minutes. Senior center Adama Ndiaye rejected three shots in the final three and a half minutes, including two thunderous swipes and a gorgeous finger-tip block to seal the deal. Ndiaye also grabbed his 11th and final rebound on BYU’s last flailing shot attempt as the clock winded down.

“I was really pleased with [Ndiaye] in the second half,” Williams said. “I thought he responded really well to what we talked about at halftime. I thought Adama came out and was alive trying to block shots. … He can affect the game in a lot of ways.”