Trucking on the road for five games and five losses, any team can feel the wear and tear of trying to defend a conference crown.
Even a two-game breather in the friendly confines of the Thunderdome against the Big West Conference’s weakest teams failed to prevent the UCSB men’s basketball team from beginning to feel that home can be a lonely place.
The Gauchos blew a 15-point halftime lead against last season’s conference cellar dweller Cal State Fullerton and petered out to the feisty Titans 57-55 in overtime on Saturday. Santa Barbara defeated Riverside last Thursday 65-49 after spending 30 days on the road. Yet the shocking defeat to CSUF, a low point in a season filled with more pratfalls than peaks, dismayed a flustered UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams.
“It was an embarrassing performance on our part in the second half,” Williams said. “We didn’t come out the way we needed to.”
Titan junior transfer guard Ralphy Holmes, the Titans leading scorer at 18 ppg, connected on an off-balance floating three-point bucket at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. Before the game-tying shot, junior guard Nick Jones missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw. Holmes pushed the ball past midcourt and hit his floating three in front of the CSUF bench.
“It’s nice to be in a position at the end, whether we make or miss a shot, to tie the game,” said CSUF Head Coach Donny Daniels, who has his Titans at 1-1 in the Big West for the first time in his three years at the helm. “The best thing about it is being down and staying with it, staying with it, staying with it.”
In overtime, the Titans grabbed two of their 11 offensive rebounds on missed free throws, resulting in two pivotal put-backs that surged the Titans ahead for good.
The Gauchos had one final chance for redemption, down 57-55 with 6.7 seconds remaining in overtime. Junior point guard Jacoby Atako brought the ball up to the top of the key and passed to senior forward Mark Hull. Hull bobbled the pass and the final horn sounded before UCSB (4-8, 1-1 in the Big West) could even get a whiff of a shot.
“Jacoby made a good pass … I just couldn’t come up with a catch,” Hull said. “I just dropped it.”
A chagrined Williams pointed out on all his players to improve in the absence of junior guard Branduinn Fullove.
“The players on the floor need to step up and make plays,” he said. “We’re not valuing each possession when we need to. We made the same mistakes repeatedly.”
Holmes led all scorers with 23 points, while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds, four on the offensive glass. Hull and Jones, the only two Gauchos in double figures, scored 21 and 16 points. Freshman guard Cecil Brown, who replaced Fullove in the starting lineup, scored only seven points on 3-8 shooting. Brown dished out six assists in 37 minutes.
Titan point Zakee Smith had 10 assists with only two turnovers and continually drove to the key creating open shots for teammates. Guard Anthony Bolton scored 12 points for CSUF.
The absence of leading scorer Fullove (16.1 ppg) didn’t help. Fullove has missed the last two games and a week of practice with a strained groin. Fullove first felt tightness in his groin during a 69-55 defeat at Brigham Young University on Dec. 21. Fullove returned to play in the azcentral.com/ASU Hoops Classic at Tempe, Arizona before sitting out of practice.
The Simi High product should return on the Idaho State/Utah State road swing Thursday and Saturday.
UCSB played miserably in the second half, especially in the last five minutes of regulation. The Gauchos shot 33.3 percent in the second frame compared with a robust 52.4 in the opening half, including a lethal 83.3 percentage from three-point range. Conversely, the Titans (3-8, 1-1) shot 55 percent from the floor, a vast improvement over the 33.3 clip in the first 20 minutes.
The major factor in the game didn’t show up in the final stat box, both coaches agreed. The Titans, with only seven players logging substantial minutes, sent the 2002 Big West Tournament champs to its first home loss of the young season.
“I thought Fullerton played with more heart and more emotion in the last five minutes of the game,” Williams said.