Just two games into the Big West Conference season, it’s become clear that no one is going to allow the preseason favorite Gauchos to cruise to a league title.
After being picked by the media and coaches to win the league, and going 11-2 in its non-conference games, UCSB came into the opening weekend of league play flying high, but a pair of tough matchups left the Gauchos (12-3 overall, 1-1 in the Big West) in an early hole in the conference standings.
In the Big West opener last Thursday, Santa Barbara withstood a number of runs from a young Long Beach State (3-10, 0-2 Big West) team to come away with a 79-64 victory. UCSB was on its way towards a perfect start to the conference season on Saturday, but the Gauchos blew a 12-point second-half lead as they suffered a disheartening home loss to Cal State Northridge (10-3, 2-0 Big West).
“There’s no team that just dominates all the way through, so we know that we have to play extremely hard every single night, especially with the high standards that we’ve set in the beginning, because guys are going to be ready to play us,” senior guard Alex Harris said.
While the Gauchos did a good job of containing Northridge centerpieces Jonathan Heard and Calvin Chitwood, they had no answer for the hot shooting night of backup guard Deon Tresvant. The Matadors’ sixth-man finished with 31 points on the night, but he was particularly unstoppable in the second half, going seven-of-eight from the field and five-of-six on threes in the final 20 minutes.
Led by Tresvant, the Matadors quickly erased the double-digit deficit and maintained a lead of their own for most of the game’s final seven minutes. UCSB had multiple chances down the stretch to regain control of the game, but the Gauchos missed a pair of crucial free throws and they were unable to get a big defensive stop when they needed it. Santa Barbara played one of its best offensive games of the season and forced 16 Northridge turnovers, but the Gaucho defense was helpless at times against a Matador team that shot 68 percent from the field in the second half.
“I thought [the] guys were playing extremely hard on [defense], so it was really frustrating for them to be knocking shots down even with us contesting them so well,” Harris said. “We’ve got to tip our hats to the way they shot the ball.”
Harris led four Gauchos in double-figures in scoring, with 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting. Junior forward Chris Devine scored 17 points in the first half, and finished with a season-high 24 points to go along with eight rebounds. Sophomore guard James Powell and senior forward Ivan Elliott rounded out the scoring effort with 13 and 11 points respectively.
UCSB blew a bigger lead a few nights earlier, when the 49ers overcame a 15-point first-half deficit, but the Gauchos used a strong second half and a balanced scoring attack to come away with the victory. Santa Barbara led 30-15 midway through the first half, but Long Beach cut the deficit to 36-35 with a six-minute run that saw the Gaucho offense turn the ball over time after time.
“The guys got a little carried away with themselves being up by [15 points],” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They thought, we’re up 15, lets take it to 30, rather than you’re up 15, let’s take it to 17. We started playing offense at the same speed we were playing defense, and that’s a problem for us.”
UCSB recovered during the second half, holding the 49ers to 39 percent shooting from the field while forcing 22 total turnovers. Devine led the scoring effort with 17, with Harris and Powell chipping in 16 points a piece and Elliott adding 13. Sophomore guard Justin Joyner filled the stat sheet with a solid overall performance, finishing with seven points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals, while turning the ball over only once.
Long Beach State struggled to contain the Gaucho big men, particularly Devine and Elliott, who combined for 16 rebounds and four blocked shots. Devine was especially effective on the offensive end of the floor, finishing with five offensive rebounds.
“I thought the key was [Devine and Elliott] inside, because we had to double-team them and they were just having their way,” Long Beach State Head Coach Dan Monson said. “I think that’s why Santa Barbara is so good offensively, because they’re so balanced. They’ve got an inside presence and they’ve got an outside presence.”
The beginning of conference play followed a dormant period of sorts for the team, with the Gauchos playing only three games since the end of Fall Quarter. UCSB finished 2-1 on a three-game road trip during the break, winning at Ball State and Eastern Washington while dropping a blowout loss to the nation’s top team, the University of North Carolina.
Originally viewed as the highlight of the Gauchos non-conference schedule, the UNC game proved to be a nightmare, as the overmatched Gauchos lost 105-70. An astounding 17 different Tar Heels got into the game, with five of them finishing in double-figures as UCSB saw its eight game win streak come to screeching halt. Harris and Powell led the way offensively with 17 points each, while senior forward Nedim Pajevic added 12 points off the bench.
UCSB now heads south for its first Big West road trip of the season. The Gauchos will look to get a measure of revenge this Thursday at 7 p.m. when they travel to UC Irvine (5-9, 0-1 Big West) to face an Anteater team that knocked them out of last season’s Big West Tournament.