After a successful three-game road swing, the UCSB men’s basketball team returns home this evening, hoping its road success will translate into a Thunderdome victory.
The Gauchos (14-6 overall, 5-2 in the Big West) will take on UC Irvine for the second time this season after defeating the Anteaters (11-13, 5-5 Big West) 64-59 in early January. The squad aims to pick up its third four-game winning streak of the season with a victory after three impressive road wins.
“We think Irvine is such a key, important game for us,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We’ve got to be ready and take care of business here at home.”
Crucial to the team’s recent success has been the play of freshman guard Justin Joyner, who has scored in double figures in three straight games. The Antioch-native keyed a game-changing 14-3 run to open the second half against UC Davis last week and has connected on 69 percent of his attempts over the past three contests.
“The game has slowed down a little bit for him,” Williams said. “He’s been a key player for us over this last stretch.”
Equally impressive has been the Gaucho defense that has locked down opponents of late. The 48 points scored by Davis were the second fewest allowed by Santa Barbara this season, and the squad has held each of its last three adversaries under 35 percent shooting from the field.
Since the last meeting with the Anteaters, UCSB has allowed opponents to hit just 22 percent of their three-point attempts and is second in the Big West in terms of field goal percentage defense. The squad has also been solid on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by nine each of the last two games.
“We’ve definitely played better; we’ve been much more alert, much more alive,” Williams said. “We’ve done a much better job of keeping people in front of us.
Irvine has dropped three of its last five and currently sits in fourth place in the Big West. The Anteaters are one of the best defensive teams in the conference and held the Gauchos to their fourth-lowest offensive output in UCSB’s victory earlier this season.
Without a dynamic scorer, Irvine relies on a balanced offensive attack that features junior forward Darren Fells and junior forward Patrick Sanders. Fells leads the Big West in field goal percentage and scored 20 points and pulled down seven rebound the first time these two teams met.
“He did a really nice job in the second half of getting the ball down low and they exploited that [in the first meeting],” Williams said. “We can afford one guy to go for 20, but you just can’t have another guy step up.”
The Gauchos have disappointed the home crowd for most of the year, posting a 5-4 record including, losses to UC Davis (4-18) and Cal Poly (11-9, 3-4 Big West) in their last two home contests. Santa Barbara currently sits a half game behind Long Beach State for the top spot in the conference and will have to start picking up wins in the Thunderdome if it is going to win the regular season title.
“We’re doing some different things in terms of our habits and what we’re doing to get ourselves prepared for the game at home,” Williams said.
If UCSB is able to contain the talented Anteater big men tonight at 7, it should be able to hold off Irvine and set the stage for Saturday’s battle for first place with Long Beach (15-6, 6-2 Big West).