After a first half in which they looked like they were still recovering from the effects of having eaten too much turkey, the UCSB men’s basketball team came out firing in the second half to pull away from Montana State for a 76-61 win Saturday night at the Thunderdome – their third consecutive victory.
Senior guard Alex Harris and sophomore guard James Powell combined for 33 second-half points to lead the Gauchos (5-1 overall) to a 76-61 victory over the Bobcats (2-3). Harris scored UCSB’s first 14 points in the second half, and when he finally took a breather, Powell took over by scoring eight points in just under four minutes.
“[Head Coach Bob Williams] said I needed to pick it up more on both ends and he challenged me at halftime to do that,” Harris said. “I think we all picked it up and I just seemed to be the benefactor. A lot of it came from somebody else making a good play for me.”
Harris was four-of-10 from the field in the first half, but he failed to get to the free throw line, a rarity for a player who is ranked fifth nationally in free throws attempted. Everything changed in the second half, as Harris came out ready to go, and his teammates continued to find him open under the basket. Harris went to the line on three straight possessions to open the second half, draining all six free throws. He followed that outburst with two more made free throws, a short jumper, a three-pointer and another free throw, before finally missing a free throw with 14:55 remaining in the second half. By that point, the Gauchos had extended the lead to six points, after leaving the locker room at halftime tied at 30.
“He dominated the game in the second half from the foul line” Williams said. “That’s the mark of what you want in a great player is that you can dominate the game in a variety of areas. He’s becoming more and more and more of a complete player. Al’s [Harris] put together so many great stat lines in the last two years but this is one of his better ones in terms of the balance.”
Harris finished the night with 29 points, the third highest total of his career. He shot only three field goals in the second half, but he finished 15-of-18 at the charity stripe, both of which approached school records for a game. His 15 made free throws are the third highest total in school history, while his 18 attempted free throws is tied for the second highest total by a Gaucho. Overall this season, Harris is shooting 84 percent at the line, and his 9.4 free throws made per game tie him with North Carolina junior All-American Tyler Hansbrough for the national lead.
“The focus is not to go below 80 percent [at the free throw line] and if so the assistant coaches are going to punish me,” Harris said. “It’s a personal goal and it’s a team goal because I know the more we knock down free throws, the better we will be.”
While Harris finished with the big numbers, Powell was equally important in preserving the Gaucho lead. With UCSB holding on to a tenuous 46-43 lead, Powell drained a three-pointer from the corner, and he kept hitting big shots to keep the Bobcats at bay. Powell finished with 15 points on six-of-13 shooting, with 13 of his points coming in the second half.
“I feel like [Powell] still gets good shots and the same amount of touches,” Harris said. “He’s a good scorer and he definitely seems to take it into his hands when I’m not in so that’s a good thing.”
Powell’s contribution was especially important as junior forward Chris Devine – the team’s second-leading scorer – missed the game to travel back to Alaska for a funeral. Devine is expected to return to the team today, and his presence will be greatly appreciated as the frontcourt rotation was extremely thin without him on Saturday night.
Senior forwards Ivan Elliott and Nedim Pajevic started up front for the Gauchos, and both finished with solid nights, despite the increased workload. Elliott played 32 minutes, scoring 11 points on four-of-10 shooting, including three-of-four from beyond the arc. Elliott finished with a game-high three two blocks, and added seven rebounds, one short of Harris’s team-leading eight. Pajevic was five-of-nine from the field and finished with 12 points to go along with five rebounds and a team-high three assists.
“It was tiring but we got through it,” Elliott said. “[Forwards Sam Phippen and Beau Gibb] gave us some good minutes but overall we’re just exhausted.”
The Gauchos will now turn their attention to Tuesday night’s monster home game against former Big West rival University of Nevada, Las Vegas (4-1). The Runnin’ Rebels beat Montana State 76-65 in their season opener, and they will come into Santa Barbara looking for revenge after losing to the Gauchos 79-76 last season in Las Vegas. It was the only home loss of the season for UNLV, which ended up going all the way to the Sweet 16.
“It’s another team that’s going to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder but we’re excited about it and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us,” Williams said. “Hopefully there will be a bit of a turnout and the Thunderdome will be rocking a little bit and our students will show up full force because we’re going to need a big crowd”