“It was hard for us to lose him. It was a heartbreaker.”

That’s what teammate and point guard B.J. Ward said at the beginning of the 2000-01 season after super-senior center Adama Ndiaye broke his finger days before the opener at Pepperdine. The finger sent Adama into an unexpected fifth year with UCSB and tonight the big guy and his fellow Gauchos battle against Irvine for first place in the Big West Conference.

Santa Barbara has learned to gel and compete in every game, thanks in a large part to the return and blossoming of Ndiaye and a bonding summer workout regimen.

The future or the present or whatever time you want to call it is here.

“Every night’s going to be a war and we got to come out ready to play,” Ndiaye said. “Go hard every minute and every second that we’re out there, and that’s very important.”

The Gauchos clash with Irvine for first place in the conference in the Thunderdome at 7. Ndiaye scooped up co-Big West Player of the Week honors with Northridge guard Markus Carr and returns home after a thee-game road trip. Ndiaye has a chance to build upon his previous two career-games at Pacific and Cal Poly. Adama scored a combined 48 points on a surreal 18-24 shooting, good for 75 percent.

And he may not be done yet.

“There’s bigger games to come out of Adama,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said.

Hard to imagine, but Adama has that potential. The Gauchos were without the services of guard Branduinn Fullove and center Mike Vukovich in the game against the Mustangs, yet Ndiaye poured in 31 and forward Mark Hull hit for 22.

“Adama stepped up big time,” Assistant Coach Marty Wilson said. “Obviously with Branduinn and Vuk out, we hoped it would be the role type players stepping up. Two of your so-called stars stepping up is what you want out of leaders, and that has proved true the whole time here.”

The Dakar, Senegal native was one of Williams’ first recruits, and his travels have left him with an intense passion for the game.

“Adama brings a freshness to the game, since he’s only played organized basketball a few years. He brings a willingness to learn,’ Williams said. “He’s a sponge.”

Ndiaye has used that passion to hone his rebounding and outside shooting skills in his travels. Williams emphasized Ndiaye’s strengths for UCSB, which enable the perimeter defense to funnel slashers his direction and score when his number is called.

“He needs to keep playing the level he’s been playing at,” Williams said. “He needs to keep his game simple: go get rebounds, block shots, and his first weapon offensively should be the face-up jumper. If he does those things, we’ll play well.”

Assistant Coach Dave Campbell, the first year coach who formerly assisted at Pepperdine with Williams and later with Wilson, noted rebounding early in games to be a problem for Ndiaye.

“Part of the problem is when Adama gets a couple fouls, he becomes tentative,” Campbell said. “We stress for the players, that regardless of foul trouble, they have to pursue the ball. When he focused and was ready to play, he became a better rebounder in conference. When he plays that way, he’s a much better player.”

The 6’9″ 245lb. center doesn’t glide along the court like his favorite NBA player, Kevin Garnett. Adama’s gentle crosscourt gait mimics a willowy Antonio Davis. Ndiaye incessantly picks up nuances of the game when he can, in practice or pick-up games.

Adama knew he belonged on a court from the time he first picked up a basketball at five, and when he returned to the game in his teens. One season at the Marine Military Academy in Texas led Ndiaye to a year at Bacone JC in Oklahoma. He overcame an eye injury to be named the squad’s Most Valuable Player.

“Playing in Oklahoma was a good experience. It was a talented team with players from all over the United States. It was a matter of getting our chemistry together,” Adama said. “It was a good experience.”

The center packed on 40 pounds of muscle to throw around fellow post players since his arrival at UCSB in 1998.

“I think I’ve made a lot of improvement physically, mentally. I came here I was really skinny. 205 or something. I was able to put up on some weight through the years,” he said. “I was able to mature as a basketball player the court.”

Tonight’s the night. At 7, Ndiaye and the Gauchos will tip-off against the Anteaters. Adama will be asked to bear a large portion of the offensive and defensive load for the second straight game. Fullove and Vukovich will likely play limited minutes, at best. Williams plans on employing a rotation of seven players.

When asked about his banged up shoulder, Adama said with a warm smile, “Shoulder’s great.”

Tonight, UCSB will ask Adama to use that shoulder in more ways than one: keeping his head up, and knocking the Anteaters down.