Tough teams win more games than the finesse clubs. Either that or they get to the line more often and make their free throws.
The defensive battle between the UCSB men’s basketball team and Cal State Northridge was a near stalemate. Yet the Gauchos success at getting to the charity stripe and converting on opportunities was enough to nudge them over the Matadors 58-51 Saturday night at the Thunderdome.
After CSUN dashed off into halftime with a 31-30 lead, the Gauchos’ stellar extended zone defense went to work. Santa Barbara, the second strongest field goal defensive team in the country behind Cincinnati, limited Northridge to 23.8 percent shooting in the second half. At the free throw line, the Gauchos made 23-28 for a healthy 82.1 percent while the Matadors made only 18 trips to the stripe making a lackluster 61 percent.
“This was a good game, and it was a really important game,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Northridge came out early and really took it to us early. Our extended zone then started to bother them.”
The zone defense stymied star Matador senior guard Markus Carr. Carr finished with a game-high 20 points. Carr scored only five of those points after halftime. UCSB point guards Jacoby Atako and B.J. Ward defended the senior effectively and were responsible for Santa Barbara’s success with the extended zone.
Carr was the only Matador in double figures.
“B.J. and Jacoby were on Carr the entire time,” Williams said. “Our guys felt good about staying in the extended zone. … We went with what the players felt best about and it worked.”
Sophomore guard Nick Jones led the way for UCSB (14-8, 8-5 in the Big West) on both ends of the floor, constantly driving the ball into the heart of CSUN’s defense for 11 trips to the free throw line.
Jones ripped down a career-high 12 rebounds, including seven offensive boards, while collecting 10 points and dishing off a season-high four assists. Despite seven turnovers, the catalyst swingman set the tempo for the game with his first double-double of the season.
“My legs were alive,” Jones said. “If you just attempt to pursue the ball, you know it was going to be there. Coach said we have to put our hard hats on to work and that’s what we did.”
Carr and the Matadors blazed to an early lead. Carr’s drive and 12-foot leaner capped a 7-0 run to start the contest. Junior forward Mark Hull nailed a jumper to put UCSB on the board, and senior center Adama Ndiaye found Jones cutting to the hoop. Jones two free throws cut the lead 7-4 with 16:28 remaining in the opening frame. Carr responded again with a 15-foot beauty and a 9-4 lead.
The Matadors (8-13, 7-5) couldn’t shake the Gauchos, and UCSB never held the lead for extended minutes when they nudged ahead. Sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove scored seven straight points for UCSB near the end of the half, including a herky-jerky circus jumper for a 30-28 lead. CSUN raced up the floor with time winding down before Fullove delivered a phantom foul with 2.3 seconds before intermission. Carr received the inbound pass before crisply draining a 25-foot three-point rainbow with the buzzer sounding.
Carr, 3-3 from deep country, was the only Matador with more than one field by the break. Yet the UCSB zone went to work on him, and teammates failed to step up. Carr finished 1-5 from three-point land the remainder of the evening.
“The thing we talked about at halftime was to try to stop Markus Carr and limiting him a little bit,” Hull said. “Forcing the other guys to make shots helped us a lot.”
“We didn’t make our shots,” CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell said. “We defended them as well as we did all year. They just made more shots.”
Hull paced the Gauchos with 18 points. Fullove finished with 11 points and Ndiaye finished with six points and nine rebounds.
UCSB battles Cal Poly at home next Saturday.
“Our guys understand how important this game will be,” Williams said. “That’s a game that can put us in third place alone. We have to win our three remaining games at home and do the best we can on the road.”