For the second consecutive Big West season, the UCSB men’s basketball team has bucked the traditional mantra that winning on the road is harder than winning at home. While they’ve won three consecutive road games, the Gauchos have lost two of their last three at the Thunderdome, a trend they’ll try to reverse this week when they host a pair of tough league opponents.
The homestand gets underway tonight at 7 p.m. when UCSB (16-5 overall, 5-3 in the Big West) hosts Cal State Fullerton (14-6, 7-2 Big West) in a crucial matchup for league positioning. The Titans currently sit in second place in the Big West, but the fourth place Gauchos have a chance to match them in the loss column if they can repeat the success that they had in an 87-72 win at Fullerton on Jan. 12. UCSB shot 65 percent from the field in that game, compared to just 34 percent for the Titans, but the Gauchos know that they can’t count on another wide disparity in shooting percentages to lead to a victory.
“I’m sure they’re going to come out and shoot the ball a little better than they did down there, but hopefully we have enough to keep them in check,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “I think the real key to the game is whether or not we get back in transition defense and don’t give them the running transition game. We need to make them play five-on-five.”
Sophomore guard James Powell led the way in the earlier victory, with 20 points on eight-of-11 shooting. Powell is coming off his best game of the season, as he exploded for a career-high 25 points in last week’s victory over UC Riverside (5-15, 2-7 Big West), an outburst that included six three-pointers. Senior guard Alex Harris scored 19 points in the victory over the Highlanders, continuing a recent trend of the duo combining for big numbers to lead the way for Santa Barbara.
“Players get shots when they’re open and when they’re the hot hand and the hot hands have been Al [Harris] and James [Powell] the last couple of games,” Williams said. “But we definitely need Chris [Devine] and Ivan [Elliott] and Nedim [Pajevic] to get hot to beat the upper echelon teams.”
Powell and Harris are leading the way for a Gaucho offense that is putting up some of the best shooting numbers in the entire country. UCSB is shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, a figure that’s good for tops in the Big West and second in the NCAA. The hot shooting continues at the free-throw line where the Gauchos 78.2 percentage ranks first in the Big West and third in the country.
“We have guys that shoot the ball well and they’re putting in the practice which makes a big difference,” Williams said. “It’s an up and down thing and whenever you talk about shooting you don’t want to rely on it. If you look at our three losses in league we didn’t shoot the ball worth squat so we’ve got to make sure we can find other ways to win games.”
Regardless of whether it’s the shooting leading the way or something else, UCSB will look to keep its roll going throughout the weekend, with tonight’s game followed by a matchup Saturday night against UC Irvine (9-12, 4-4 Big West). The Gauchos will look to avenge a January loss to the Anteaters in a game that will be televised by Fox Sports “Prime Ticket”.