Despite mounting a formidable challenge, the UCSB men’s basketball team just couldn’t oust #24 Utah State from the Associated Press Top 25.
As a staple of consistency, the Aggies (19-1, 11-0 in the Big West) secured victory over UCSB (12-8, 6-5) on Saturday at the packed Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum in front of the capacity 10,270 spectators.
UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams mixed up the starting lineup against Utah State in an attempt to find a solution to the Gauchos’ struggling offense against Idaho. Santa Barbara turned to sophomore guards Joe See and Cecil Brown, replacing struggling senior guards Nick Jones and Jacoby Atako. The Gauchos are 7-0 when Brown scores 10 or more points, yet the sweet-shooting sophomore was limited to just two total points after being sidelined midway through the game with a re-aggravated ankle injury.
UCSB held its ground against the Aggies in the first half, limiting junior forward Spencer Nelson and sophomore forward Nate Harris in the post for much of the period. Santa Barbara showed promising half-court sets and limited its turnovers, something the Gauchos have failed to do all year long. Sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche made the start and provided the hot-hand early. After connecting with Brown on a transition alley-oop just 3:20 into the game, Goettsche scored eight first-half points, mostly on perimeter jump shots. The Gauchos hit the locker room with a 30-28 advantage, despite just two points a piece from Santa Barbara’s shooting assassins, See and senior guard Branduinn Fullove.
The Aggies responded in the second half, however. After senior forward Bryan Whitehead’s baseline jumper at the 15:30 mark would begin a Santa Barbara scoring drought that lasted 8:11 and a field goal-converting dry spell that lasted over 10 minutes. Harris began the scoring barrage with a field goal to pull within three points of the Gauchos. After getting to the free throw line for much of the half, senior guard Mark Brown electrified the crowd with a three-point dagger at the 8:26 mark to give the Aggies a 45-41 lead. By the time Atako scored a three-pointer with just under five minutes to play, Utah State had pushed ahead 52-46.
Goettsche’s field goal with 3:25 remaining pulled the Gauchos within five points, but on the other end of the court, senior guard Cardell Butler threw home a monstrous two-hand put back, timing his flight path perfectly from a few feet inside the free throw line. The senior scored a game-high 19 points on 7-12 shooting, but no field goal in the game would prove too costly to the Gauchos, whose rising first-half scoring ascent had deflated to a second-half stumble.
Butler’s dunk made a Top-10 nominee highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Saturday night.
The Gauchos, having lost to Idaho on Thursday night, appear to be fading fast. The favorites to win the Big West at the beginning of the season have been plagued by a lack of consistency. Certainly one of the most talented groups in the conference, Santa Barbara has yet to have five players play consistent basketball at the same time. UCSB has certainly shown flashes of promise throughout the season, but the Gauchos have proven capable of lows of depression.
The Gauchos slipped another game behind the conference-leading Aggies, who have won 16 straight games this season and could possibly leapfrog into the top-20 of the national rankings this week. The University of the Pacific also improved to 10-1 in the Big West with a win against Long Beach State. Despite its two losses, UCSB remains a game-ahead of Cal State Northridge in the conference standings.
After a dreadful road trip into the mountains, Santa Barbara can afford a well-needed rest before resuming play on Saturday night against rival Cal Poly on Saturday night at 7.