A headline from Feb. 27, 1990 reads, “I.V. Burns in Celebration.”
No, it wasn’t a prank. It wasn’t Halloween. It wasn’t a soccer celebration. It was the couch-burning celebration that followed a UCSB men’s basketball home victory over a UNLV team that would go on to win the National Championship by 30 points. Believe it or not, men’s basketball used to be the big show around here. The Thunderdome regularly rocked with over 6,000 fans when the hated Runnin’ Rebels came to town, and on many occasions, the Gauchos came away victorious.
UNLV (4-1 overall) returns to UCSB (5-1) tonight for the first time since 1996, to renew a rivalry that dominated the Big West Conference almost two decades ago. The Gauchos and Rebels matched up last season in Las Vegas, with UCSB coming away with a 79-76 victory in what was the only home loss of the season for a UNLV team that advanced all the way to the Sweet 16. Despite the fact that most of his players weren’t even in elementary school when the rivalry first got heated, UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams knows his team will be pumped up for tonight’s game.
“They have to be excited about it. Vegas and Santa Barbara means a lot,” Williams said. “There’s just such a history there that it’s an exciting opportunity even though none of these guys played in those games. They felt it last year when we played in Vegas. They knew it was a great opportunity and we played pretty well. It’s another great opportunity for us, and hopefully we put a good show on and play well.”
Back in the day, it was Carrick Dehart and Brian Shaw leading the way for the Gauchos. Tonight it will be senior guard Alex Harris, who was named Big West Player of the Week yesterday after averaging 28 points in two Gaucho victories last week. At 25 points per game, Harris is the country’s eighth leading scorer.
Harris is joined in double-figures by three of his teammates. Junior forward Chris Devine is averaging 14.2 points per game, while senior forward Nedim Pajevic and sophomore guard James Powell are chipping in 10.2 points apiece. The foursome is doing much of its damage at the free-throw line, where they’re shooting 82 percent as a group. Overall, the Gauchos are shooting 80 percent as a team, the fifth-highest percentage in the country.
After losing two of their top three scorers from a year ago, the Rebels have a more balanced attack this season, led by junior guard Wink Adams, senior forward Curtis Terry and junior forward Joe Darger. Adams leads the way with 13 points per game.
“The nice thing is when you’re at [UNLV] you don’t rebuild, you reload,” Williams said. “They have the opportunity to go pretty much anywhere to get players so there will not be a shortage of talent running around on their side.”
The Gauchos are averaging 1,246 fans in their three home games this season, a number that pales in comparison to the 6,000 plus that regularly filled the Thunderdome in the heyday of the UCSB-UNLV rivalry. Despite the change in the fan base over the last few years, Williams is hopeful for a big crowd when the teams take the floor tonight.
“Hopefully the community shows up and the students show up. We need a full house when it comes to a game like this,” Williams said. “It’s important for the emotional edge if you want to rattle another team to have 6,000 fans. We’re not talking 4,000, we’re talking 6,000 people. We’re not talking 1,000 students, we need 2,500 and we need them standing and wearing their Gaucho Loco shirts and being a presence. That’s what we need to have a home court advantage.”