Note to the rest of the Big West: Don’t provoke the UCSB men’s basketball team, especially in its own gym.
Senior guard Jason Allen and the Cal Poly Mustangs (7-9 overall, 3-4 in the Big West) learned this lesson the hard way, succumbing to the Gauchos for the 10th straight time Saturday night at the Thunderdome, 70-61. Santa Barbara (8-9, 5-2) completed an undefeated run through its last home stretch, winning all four contests and leapfrogging from Big West flops to apparent NCAA hopefuls.
The Gauchos were led by senior forward Mark Hull, who posted a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds and became the #4 all-time leading scorer in Gaucho history, surpassing the 1,400 career point mark.
“I think all we’ve done is established that we have a chance to be in the hunt,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We wanted to establish how we need to play, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve come out and played with a lot more tenacity and a lot more fire in the last three games.”
After sinking a three to put Cal Poly up early 6-2, Allen taunted the UCSB student body, throwing up his hands as if he had just won the game.
Minutes later, UCSB junior guard Branduinn Fullove pulled up for a jumper to knot the score at 11 each, and the Gauchos never trailed again.
At 5-2 in conference, the Gauchos are now tied for second in the Big West with UC Irvine – who surprisingly lost to CSUN over the weekend – and are just a half game back of Utah State.
An improved and inspired UCSB defense held Cal Poly to 35 percent shooting from the field and forced 15 turnovers by employing man-to-man, match-up zone and zone press defense. UCSB junior point guard Jacoby Atako was instrumental in hampering Poly’s attack, keeping Allen relatively quiet for most of the game until the final minutes.
“I thought we were pretty darn active on the defensive end,” Williams said. “That’s key for us. If our defense generates the game for us then we have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team.”
In the last 10 minutes of the game, the Gauchos kept Poly at a reasonably comfortable distance with excellent free throw shooting, particularly Fullove, who went 8-8 from the charity stripe and has now made 22 in a row.
“That’s one of the areas that we’ve tightened up. Guys are stepping up and making their free throws,” Fullove said. “I think just on the whole and individually, guys are just focused a little bit more and it pays off for us down the stretch.”
Both recently and historically, UCSB has owned the coastal rivalry that is becoming increasingly less heated with each Gaucho victory.
“We have a great deal of respect for Cal Poly, and every time we show up, we’re showing up to play. We know Cal Poly’s a good basketball team and this thing could stop any minute,” Williams said.
Cal Poly’s second leading scorer junior forward Shane Schilling was sidelined with a foot injury, and his presence was missed as his replacement, senior forward James Grace, tallied one point. Junior forward Varnie Dennis and Allen led the way for the Mustangs with 16 points in the losing effort.
“We’ve just got their number right now; we’ll take it as long as we’ve got it,” Hull said.