The first play said everything you need to know about the current power status in the Big West Conference.
Utah State senior forward and Big West Player of the Year candidate Desmond Penigar backed his way into the paint for an inside bucket against the UCSB men’s basketball team’s frontline. The Aggies never looked back.
The two-time, regular-season Big West champs buggy-whipped the Gauchos from the opening tip to the final buzzer in a 75-59 thrashing before a rabid, sold-out crowd of 9,669 at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah on Saturday.
Santa Barbara could not stay in the contest long before the Aggies’ interior presence overwhelmed the short-handed and short-footed Gauchos. Four UCSB forwards, who primarily roam in the low post, combined for six rebounds and 11 points in 41 minutes of action. Utah State’s two-headed beast, Spencer Nelson and Nate Harris, combined for 10-10 shooting for 25 points and 19 rebounds in 42 minutes.
“They’re a very big team down low,” sophomore point guard Chrismen Oliver said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a team that big this year.”
Whenever Nelson struggled with fouls, USU Head Coach Stew Morrill would plug Harris into the lineup and the Aggies would not miss a beat. Nelson scored six quick points and the Aggies jumped ahead 10-6.
UCSB senior forward Mark Hull followed Nelson’s inside bucket with his first three of the evening to cut the lead to 10-7 at 16:04 in the first half. Unfortunately, no other Gaucho could consistently find the bottom of the net from three-point territory. Hull made 3-8 from downtown and led Santa Barbara (5-9, 2-2 in the Big West) with 15 points.
The Gauchos made 6-25 treys for a paltry 24 percent, including a barren two of 13 (15.4 percent) in the opening frame.
“We tried to hurry more on our shots,” Oliver said. “Like Coach [Bob Williams] said, we weren’t taking each possession one at a time.”
Junior guards Nick Jones and Branduinn Fullove, the other two primary scoring threats, combined to shoot 1-9 from behind the arc. Fullove, frustrated all night by a relentless defense and a chorus of boos whenever he touched the ball, went 3-12 from the floor including 0-5 from three-point land. Fullove, the Gauchos’ leading scorer at 16 ppg, finished with seven points.
The crowd was the largest UCSB has faced since the NCAA Tourney contest against Arizona in The Pit of Albuquerque last March.
“They were loud. I didn’t really think about it until after the game,” Oliver said. “When the crowd first got going, it was hard to hear the coach in the huddle. I enjoy it though.”
Utah State (12-3, 3-1) could not pull away from UCSB until a 9-0 run midway through the second half sent the Gauchos reeling. After Oliver stroked a floater to cut the deficit to 44-39 at 12:45, backup guard Cardell Butler sank a pull-up jumper and a three. Penigar calmly hit a turnaround jumper. Forward Chad Evans highlighted the run with a slam-dunk on a full-court inbounds pass from Nelson to push the lead to 53-39 at 10:26.
“We’ll take some valuable lessons from this game that will help us the next time we play Utah State,” freshman guard Josh Davis said. “It was a frustrating game but also a learning experience.”