The UCSB men’s basketball team was stranded in the desert on Saturday night, still rolled up in its shell and waiting to find life.

The Gauchos dropped an important contest to UC Riverside 63-60 at the Student Recreation Center on Saturday evening in Santa Barbara’s final road game of the regular season. UCSB has now lost five of its last six games and drops to a measly 14-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big West Conference. The loss drops the Gauchos back into fourth place, as the University of Idaho (13-14, 9-8) reclaimed the third spot with a 60-56 win over Long Beach State on Saturday.

After building a 33-28 halftime lead, Santa Barbara kept it close in the second half, even though the Gauchos didn’t lead after the 7:57 mark. Sophomore guard Cecil Brown made a spectacular play with 10 seconds remaining in regulation to thin the Highlanders’ advantage to one at 61-60, but senior guard Kevin Butler nailed one of two free throws after being intentionally fouled to give UCR a three-point edge. Sophomore guard Josh Davis tried to send the ball the length of the court on the inbound play, but the pass was broken up and stolen by sophomore guard Rickey Porter, who converted on a free throw to seal the victory for the Highlanders.

Despite the fact that Riverside had blown second-half leads in the three games leading up to Saturday’s contest against UCSB, the Highlanders (9-15, 6-10) are playing some of the best basketball in the Big West. UCR gave #23 Utah State an overtime scare on Feb. 19 in Logan, Utah, but lost in an overtime shootout to Cal Poly on Thursday night. Junior forward Vili Morton led all scorers with 19 points on 7-12 shooting from the field. The Highlanders are currently in eighth place in the conference and would make the eight-team Big West Tournament if it were to start today. Riverside faces streaky Northridge and conference-leading University of the Pacific in its final two games.

In Saturday’s game, Brown’s 15 points on 5-10 from the floor led Santa Barbara. Junior forward Casey Cook added 14 points while senior guard Jacoby Atako lifted the Gauchos with 12 points and a team-high four assists. Senior guard Branduinn Fullove scored most of his 11 points at the free throw line, going a perfect six for six at the charity stripe.

On Thursday, Santa Barbara hosted UC Irvine, a team that handed Utah State a tough game at the Bren Events Center. The Gauchos finish their regular season with a contest against Long Beach State on Saturday at the Thunderdome. The 49ers rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit to defeat Santa Barbara on a game-winning, buzzer-beating three-pointer in UCSB’s conference opener on Jan. 3. Idaho, which sits just a half-game in front of the Gauchos, hosts Utah State on Saturday. If USU can beat the Vandals, Santa Barbara could finish the season in third place, with two straight home victories. The third and fourth seeds in the conference tournament receive a first-round bye but must win three straight games to be crowned conference champions. Both Pacific and Utah State, still vying for the first seed, will only have to win two consecutive games to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
– Michael Long