Momentum is hard to come by given the parity of the Big West Conference, but after defeating Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly, UCSB has finally found some.
Following two consecutive road wins, the Gauchos (14-4, 3-2 in Big West) return home to face the Pacific Tigers (13-5, 4-1 in Big West) tonight. Since their loss to UC Irvine over a week ago, the Gauchos have been led by sophomore guard James Powell, who had back-to-back 20 point nights in the two victories.
“We just want to keep playing well,” Powell said. “After the Irvine game, that was a game we know we shouldn’t have lost, so we kind of sat down and looked ourselves in the mirror, and I feel like we’re right back on the right track playing well again. We have a little bit of momentum, which is a good thing playing against Pacific, and we need that.”
Fresh off being named Big West Player of the Week, Pacific junior forward Anthony Brown comes into the Thunderdome after notching his fifth double-double of the season last week. Junior guard Steffan Johnson is off to the best start of his career, averaging 15.8 points per game to go with a team-high 83 assists and 31 steals. Johnson’s teammate in the Pacific backcourt is redshirt junior guard Chad Troyer, who contributes just over 12 points per game and leads the team with 44 three-pointers made.
“They’re a very good team,” Assistant Coach David Campbell said. “Johnson is having a fabulous year. He’s a kid that’s been with the program for a few years now, and he is very explosive off the dribble and also a very good three-point shooter. They have a really good inside-out combination.”
As a team, the Tigers are shooting just over 40 percent from long-range with both Johnson and Troyer acting as dangerous threats from outside. Pacific has also out-rebounded its opponents by over five rebounds per game this season, which is far better than any other team in the conference. Currently second in the Big West standings, the Tigers are riding a two-game win streak of their own.
“This year, the main emphasis for us is going to be to stop their transition game and get back on defense,” Campbell said. “They also shoot the ball very well, so covering out to shooters and giving them no open looks is going to be huge. If we do those two things, we should have a pretty good shot.”
On UCSB’s side, senior guard Alex Harris achieved a career milestone at Cal Poly by scoring a season-high 31 points and moving ahead of three former Gauchos on the all-time scoring list. Junior forward Chris Devine remains just 10 points shy of 1,000 points, which would make him the 22nd player in school history to reach that mark. However, Santa Barbara’s improvements as a team over the last two games are more likely on the minds of both players, rather than personal achievements.
“I don’t think we’re playing anywhere near where we’re capable of,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “But I think we’re making strides, and we’re getting better. I like the direction we’re headed right now and the chemistry of the team. I thought we had a much healthier game our last two games than the previous two in terms of team cohesiveness, shot selection and chemistry.”
Tip-off for tonight’s game is set for 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome.