Senior Night for the UCSB men’s basketball team was like a wedding. There was broken glass along the way but in the end everything turned out sweet.
The Gauchos pulled away from Riverside in the final four minutes for a 80-58 victory Saturday night at the Thunderdome before 2,671 fans to send senior centers Adama Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich out on a winning note. Four of five Santa Barbara starters scored in double figures, bolstered by Ndiaye’s eighth career double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds. Vukovich poured in six points in an effective 11 minutes off the bench.
“It was their last game in the Thunderdome, and we all wanted to bear down and send the seniors out with a win,” said junior forward Mark Hull, who chipped in 16 points including a dazzling 4-7 fireworks from behind the arc. Hull also dished four assists and pilfered two balls.
Sophomore guard Branduinn Fullove scored 18 points and three steals for the Gauchos, and sophomore guard Nick Jones pumped in 10 points, four assists and three swipes. Sophomore point guard Jacoby Atako, the only starter not in double figures, did a fine job running the offense and patrolling on defense, generating six assists with only one turnover and three steals.
Atako has had nine steals in the last two games.
“Jacoby is doing what we need Jacoby to do. And the other thing I liked is while he didn’t shoot it as well tonight, he’s more aggressive right now offensively,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “His confidence level has come up a bit.”
The win over the Highlanders marked the conclusion of the regular season for Santa Barbara. The Gauchos, who clinched third place with 11-7 in conference play and 17-10 overall, will travel to Anaheim for the Big West Tournament. The No. 3 seeded UCSB will face No. 6 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo – a squad it has defeated twice this season – on Thursday at around 8:30 p.m. Last season, the Gauchos swept Pacific in the regular season, only to be bounced in the first game of the tourney.
The Gauchos hope history will not repeat itself, yet are pleased with drawing the Mustangs in the opening round.
“I like playing Cal Poly. But you know, any game you play in this tournament is going to be difficult,” Williams said.
Santa Barbara is also pleased that it is in the same bracket with Irvine. UCI is considered vulnerable after fading late in the season. Long Beach State creamed the Anteaters by 16 points, 86-70 on Feb. 28. UCSB clawed back against Irvine to take a one-point lead in the final 40 seconds on UCI’s Senior Night. The Gauchos were down the entire second half of that game before roaring back in a hostile environment and feel confident that they can defeat Irvine this season.
Santa Barbara was intent on taking care of business at home against UCR. Only the Highlanders, out of the conference tournament at 8-18 and 5-13, weren’t going to let their season die without a fight.
Sophomore guard Teddy Bell paced UCR with 17 points, including 4-9 from three-point country. Senior forward Lloyd Cook plugged in 10 points.
Much of the Gauchos success on the defensive according to UCR Head Coach John Masi was their stifling zone defense.
“Lloyd got 11 points on man-to-man defense or on the fast break, yet none when they were playing zone,” Masi said. “At least we were competitive for most of the game.”
The Highlanders had the lead for nearly 10 minutes of the opening half, building it up to as big as six on Bell’s three at 14-8 with 14:11 in the first half. The Gauchos roared back to build a nine-point lead at halftime. Walk-ons junior forward Bray Skultety and freshman guard Chrismen Oliver seemed to keep UCSB afloat with their energy off the pine.
Skultety had to change jerseys after he came up with a loose ball at 9:04 in the first half. His jersey was torn and changed to No. 23 after a timeout. Skultety tussled a game-high six offensive boards. Oliver dished two assists and a blocked a shot in 16 minutes.
UCSB charged ahead in the final minutes when UCR simply ran out of steam. And the Gauchos are ready to keep rolling all the way to the Big Dance.
“I have a great feeling about this team,” Williams said. “I like the attitude of our ball club, I like where we are and I like our chances.”