Despite leading San Diego State for the majority of the second half, the UCSB men’s basketball team came up short in its attempt to start the season 5-0 for the first time in 14 years.
The Gauchos (4-1 overall) could not overcome second-half foul trouble and the hot shooting of Aztec senior guard Brandon Heath as SDSU (7-0) pulled away down the stretch and escaped the Thunderdome with a narrow 76-72 victory. UCSB led 31-29 at halftime and the Gauchos were able to extend the lead to eight before both freshman guard James Powell and junior forward Chris Devine picked up their fourth fouls, forcing the two starters to sit the bench. Devine’s fourth foul put SDSU in the bonus with over 10 minutes left in the game, allowing the Aztecs to make 15 out of 23 second-half free throws.
“[Powell and Devine] both being out hurt us,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We maybe did run out of gas a little, but let’s give them credit; Heath took some big shots and made some big plays. They’ve got a lot of offensive weapons and a lot of big, strong athletes and when they went big it bothered us. If you look in the state of California, there’s only one team that I’ve seen that’s better than them and that’s UCLA.”
UCSB trailed for most of the first half, but behind the strong play of Powell and junior guard Alex Harris, the Gauchos rallied to take the lead heading into halftime. Powell led the Gauchos with 12 points in the first half, but he was able to play only 11 minutes in the second half after picking up two quick fouls. Fellow freshman guard Justin Joyner played his best game as a Gaucho and finished with career highs of 11 points and five rebounds.
With UCSB trailing late in the game, Joyner hit a clutch three-pointer and completed an old-fashioned three-point play moments later when he was fouled after going coast to coast for a layup.
“Once I felt [Aztec sophomore guard Richie Williams] on my hip I knew I was going to get fouled so I just wanted to power through the finish,” Joyner said. “That wasn’t the play that coach drew up, but I got an angle to the basket so I just took it.”
Joyner’s free throw cut the deficit to three with 24 seconds to play, but Heath made one of two free throws on the other end to give SDSU a 74-70 lead. The Gauchos came back down the floor and after a missed three-point attempt from sophomore forward Tom Garlepp, Harris’s tip-in attempt spun around the rim and fell out. Two free throws from senior forward Mohamed Abukar sealed the win for the Aztecs. Heath led the way for SDSU, scoring 29 points on nine-of-14 shooting, including five-of-eight from beyond the arc.
“[Heath] is tough to defend. They ran a lot of stuff for him, he’s a great player,” Joyner said.
Harris scored a team-high 21 points and added a season-high six assists. The junior has crossed the 20-point threshold in every game this season and leads the Big West in scoring at 22.8 points per game. Devine had been averaging over 19 points per game, but the Aztecs used constant double teams to hold him to only seven field goal attempts. He finished with 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
“Chris really is our go-to guy down low and when he got it, they doubled him. He got a lot more than seven touches but he only got seven shots because they did a really nice job of doubling him,” Williams said.
After winning both of its exhibition games and the first four to start the season, UCSB will now attack the task of learning from its first loss this season. The road does not get any easier as the Gauchos will now prepare for Wednesday night’s game against Loyola Marymount (6-2). Tip-off for that game will be at 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome.