Would you like an ice pack with that jump shot?
The UCSB men’s basketball players knew they would have their hands full with Big West foe Utah State in the Thunderdome Saturday night. But the Aggies literally left the Gauchos out in the cold, while Santa Barbara struggled to connect on only 27 percent of its shots from the floor in the second half.
Ventura Junior College transfer Desmond Penigar led Utah State with 19 points and six rebounds in a 60-56 victory over UCSB. The loss was the first at home for Santa Barbara after going 5-0 before Saturday’s contest.
After heading toward the locker room knotted up 30-30, the Gauchos could not counter the Aggies’ toughness on the glass or on the perimeter, even as USU’s 10-point lead dwindled down to three with a 1:44 remaining. UCSB failed to retain any sort of rhythm offensively, while the Aggies continually kept punishing a softer Gaucho squad with their bruising style of play.
“Toughness is something we need to take upon ourselves and be physical,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Playing tough is one of the elements we need to get better at.”
Frigid shooting in a second half by a Gaucho team that had shot above 50 percent in five of the previous six games, including a steaming 57 percent from the field in a 76-53 victory against Idaho Thursday, ultimately doomed Santa Barbara. UCSB missed all nine of its three point field goals in the second half. The Gauchos connected on 3-7 in the opening frame.
Senior center Adama Ndiaye started the game on a sour note for Santa Barbara, throwing up an airball that would represent the theme for the remainder of the night. Junior forward Mark Hull missed an uncontested layup and followed that with a missed jumper. Sophomore forward Bryan Whitehead then missed a shot before sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove nailed a bucket at 17:12.
The Gauchos (9-4, 3-1 in the Big West) started to get in an offensive rhythm. Ndiaye nailed a jumper on an assist from Fullove to tie the game 9-9 with 14:03 remaining. The game would be tied two more times after Hull’s only trey of the night for 14-14 deadlock. After sophomore guard Nick Jones hit a layup and junior point guard B.J. Ward stroked a shot from downtown, Fullove handed the Gauchos their first lead of the night on a trey with just under six minutes to go in the half.
But the Aggies (11-2, 3-1) not only hung in the game, they started to grind at Santa Barbara. USU ran off on a 9-0 run after Fullove’s basket. And when Utah State realized that it could push the Gauchos around to the point of ill-advised jump shots and runners, the Aggies continually pressured UCSB nearly to the point of intimidation.
“We played really, really hard,” Utah State Head Coach Stew Morrill said. “Our defense in the second half particularly was huge for us. Defensively we were doing a good job.
“This is a tremendous win for us.”
The victory also marked Morrill’s 300th as a head coach and 82nd while leading the Aggies. The coach humbly laughed off the milestone, saying, “they haven’t run me off yet.”
When the second half started, the Aggies came out playing like they were the underdogs trying to knock off the conference championships. Utah State completely controlled the tempo by doing just enough to keep UCSB at bay. Both teams hit nine field goals, but USU went to the line more often and guard Ronnie Ross made his only three-point attempt of the half. Ross hit 3-4 treys in the game to finish with 11 points.
Fullove, on the other hand, went 0-5 in the second half, as his feet never appeared to be correctly set on any of his long shots.
“My outside shot wasn’t going in,” Fullove said.
And when the outside shot wasn’t falling, the guard was looking to attack the hoop, which he did with relative success throughout the night. Fullove was 7-11 from inside the arc.
“Especially down the stretch, I was looking to get to the line,” Fullove said.
Unfortunately, the rest of the team could not find the touch from the outside, or even from inside the key. The Gauchos missed 4-8 layups in the second half and didn’t hit a shot that was further than 12 feet away. Only three players shot above 50 percent from the floor: Ndiaye was 3-6 for 11 points, Ward was 2-2 for six points, and senior center Mike Vukovich hit both of his shots in a foul-plagued 11 minutes.
“We didn’t take the shots we wanted, we took the shots that were there,” Williams said.
In the end, though, it was the lack of toughness that prevented the Gauchos from playing their style of hard-nosed, defensive-hounding basketball. For the first time this season, the players had their backs to the wall and did not respond fast enough or with enough intensity.
“We knew going it was going to be a war,” Williams said. “We said it’s going to be a grind in the second half.”
And that grind was too intense for UCSB to handle in its first conference loss of the season.