Whoever thinks winning big means winning comfortably never saw the UCSB men’s basketball team take the court.
The Gauchos staved off a voracious second-half rally by Cal State Northridge to upend the only Big West team without a conference victory after Long Beach State stopped Idaho at The Pyramid.
Santa Barbara built a 29-point lead yet watched it evaporate to 13 before time, shots and luck ran out for the Matadors in a 77-59 UCSB victory Thursday evening in the Thunderdome.
Breaking down CSUN’s half-court traps and pressure defense led to runs of 18-3 and 17-4 in the opening minutes of each half. These bursts proved to be decisive for the Gauchos. Northridge picked up its first two points on a mid-court trap, and an agitated UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams called timeout immediately.
“We had a turnover in one of the early possessions against the press,” Williams said. “We had a quick timeout, and once we got ourselves focused in, I thought Jacoby [Atako] was the difference in attacking the press. He was outstanding tonight.”
Atako finished the night with 11 points and seven assists. The junior point guard drilled 3-3 shots from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line. More importantly, he pushed the ball and fed his running mates against CSUN’s opportunistic defense.
“I was really looking forward to this game, to be honest with you,” Atako said. “When teams pressure you, it opens up a lot of penetration lanes. If they’re full-court pressing, then you can run on them a lot and it’s real fun to play.”
Trailing 8-4, the Gauchos started firing on all cylinders. Senior forward Mark Hull and junior guard Branduinn Fullove combined for a quick eight points. After CSUN sophomore forward Ian Boylan knocked down a three, Fullove passed up an open trey to feed Hull at the top of the key for a trifecta. Before the Matadors could blink, UCSB surged ahead 22-11 at 11:59.
“We came out shooting the ball very well and we came out defending,” Williams said. “I thought defensively we were outstanding. We generated our offense from being really alive defensively.”
The Matadors couldn’t generate anything from anyone consistently most of the night, leaving CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell flustered. CSUN (6-8, 0-4 in the Big West) has lost six straight games.
“I question our effort, I question our energy level and our competitiveness,” Braswell said. “We got knocked down and didn’t get back up and fight.
“It was a noncompetitive game. We’ve got the bottom all to ourselves.”
Braswell also mentioned that reviving this team from an 0-4 hole in the Big West will be one of his most daunting challenges as a coach.
The Gauchos pushed ahead 54-27 on Atako’s layup with 15:07 left in the contest. UCSB scored only five points in the next 10:13. Sophomore backup guard Joseph Frazier, who led CSUN with 15 points, heated up late and, after grabbing two consecutive offensive rebounds, dished out to freshman forward Ben Sullivan for a baby hook inside to cut the lead 59-46. Time and 26-35 Gaucho free throws, including connecting on 13-14 to end the game, doomed the Matadors.
Santa Barbara shot 60.9 percent from the hardwood in the first half, jolted by a 4-4 effort from sophomore forward Casey Cook. Pumping in 14 points and seven rebounds in a career-high 28 minutes, Cook is starting to fulfill UCSB’s hopes for an inside presence.
“I’m starting to feel more confident and patient,” Cook said. “I’m trying to catch the ball and look and see what I have and then go to my move.”
Hull, the bread and butter for the Gauchos the past four seasons, led all scorers with 16 points including a 3-6 clip from long range.
“Mark’s been a stud, flat out,” Williams said. “He does everything.”
UCSB battles Pacific (8-5, 3-1) Saturday night at 7 in the Thunderdome.
“UOP’s very good. They won a lot of basketball games at home,” Williams said. “They’ve been real good at home, so let’s see them step up on the road. And it’s our challenge to play with the same type of intensity and enthusiasm that we had against Northridge.”