With only four regular season games remaining and the conference picture clearing up by the day, the UCSB men’s basketball team travels to Cal State Fullerton tonight in a battle for second place.
Santa Barbara (15-9 overall, 6-4 in the Big West) currently trails the Titans (18-7, 8-4 Big West) by one game and could pull even with a victory. The top two conference finishers in the regular season each earn two byes in the Big West Tournament, and with Long Beach State (18-7, 9-2 Big West) ahead of the pack, the Gauchos and Titans have the best shot at nabbing the coveted second spot.
“We’re definitely going after that second spot,” junior forward Chris Devine said. “We feel that a good showing against Fullerton will put us in a good position to do that.”
UCSB enters tonight’s crucial contest on a three-game losing streak – its longest of the season. Two of the three defeats came in the Thunderdome by a single point to Long Beach and Eastern Washington (13-14), with a loss on the road to Cal Poly (14-10, 5-5 Big West) sandwiched in between. The Gauchos had plenty of opportunities to win each home loss, but missed free throws down the stretch and their inability to slow down opposing offenses contributed to the losses.
“Had these been blowouts, we may have had to look at ourselves and think something is wrong,” junior guard Alex Harris said. “Our problem has been our man-to-man defense. We’ve been lettings guys get to the basket and put guys on the foul line in crunch time. We just need maybe one or two more stops than we’ve been getting.”
Santa Barbara got the best of Fullerton in their first meeting, an 84-76 UCSB win on Dec. 30, 2006 in Santa Barbara. Devine turned in perhaps his best performance of the season, pouring in 25 points to lead four Gauchos in double figures. It was one of the squad’s best offensive performances of the season, shooting 58 percent from the field.
UCSB was able to hold guard Bobby Brown, one of the most explosive scorers in the Big West, to just four-of-17 shooting and prevented him from earning any trips to the free throw line. But UCSB’s attention to Brown freed up pressure on forward Scott Cutley, who matched Devine’s 25-point effort.
“The zone defense will be tailored a little more toward Cutley at the high post because he hurt us there last game,” Devine said. “As far as Bobby goes, we’re aren’t going to change much.”
The Titans have struggled of late as well, riding a two-game slide after losses to Long Beach and Wright State last week. Fullerton owns the conference’s best home record at 11-1, the only blemish coming at the hands of the 49ers in the Titans’ last contest on its home floor.
Something will have to give tonight, as the Gauchos bring in one of the conference’s best defenses to counter the Big West’s highest scoring offense. The league’s two leading scorers will be on the floor in Harris and Brown.
“We’ve been working on the adjustments in the zone because we know them so well and can focus on the specific things they do,” Devine said. “We’ve really gone after each other to keep that fire going, because that’s been a problem for us the past few games.”