As the Gauchos gathered in a swaying huddle just before the opening tip, Justin Joyner pounded the floor and screamed at his teammates to get ready for Saturday night’s crucial Big West Conference matchup against UC Irvine. Joyner was ready to roll, but despite the best performance of his career, the sophomore guard walked off the Thunderdome floor a couple of hours later with the knowledge that UCSB had once again blown a conference home game, likely ending any shot the Gauchos had at the Big West regular season title.
Joyner scored a career-high 16 points and added seven assists, but UCSB (17-6 overall, 6-4 in the Big West) squandered a 10-point second-half lead to an Anteater (10-13, 5-5 Big West) squad that continued its dominance of the Gauchos with a 65-59 victory. Following Joyner’s fourth three-pointer of the game, UCSB led 47-37 with just over 15 minutes remaining in the second half, but the Gauchos went ice-cold from that point on, as a 13-0 Anteater run swung the momentum in the road team’s favor. Santa Barbara missed 21 of its final 25 shots, including a dismal four-for-17 performance from beyond the arc.
“We didn’t do a good job of adjusting to missing outside shots, and we didn’t really pound it inside,” Joyner said. “We weren’t really getting the ball inside, so we weren’t getting good looks.”
While UCSB came into the game as the second-best three-point shooting team in the nation, it proved the mantra that if you live by the three, you will also, on occasion, die by the three. Senior guard Alex Harris and sophomore guard James Powell combined to go just four-for-15 on three-pointers, with both players missing shots that would have given the Gauchos a chance in the game’s final moments.
“We did get fool’s gold, and we got happy with the three. We don’t want to live on the three-point line,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “You have to continue to make shots, and we didn’t value each possession the way we needed to.”
Despite averaging only 3.8 points per game coming into the night, and scoring only 19 points in his previous six games, Joyner took advantage of a bevy of open looks en route to a six-of-10 shooting performance. Perhaps more impressively, he turned the ball over only once to go along with his game-high seven dimes.
“The last time we played them, they really sagged on our point guards, so I knew I was going to get looks today and it was just a matter of knocking them down,” Joyner said. “I was making shots, and I guess I was more confident.”
The teams played evenly in the first half, with UCSB taking a slim 34-30 advantage into the locker rooms, largely on the strength of 10 first half points from Joyner. The Antioch native hit all four of his shots in a first half that saw the Gauchos hit 63 percent of their shots. With Joyner and junior forward Chris Devine leading the way, Santa Barbara looked to have their fourth-consecutive league win wrapped up, but as has been the case on several other occasions this year, the Gauchos were unable to hold a double-digit lead. After sweeping the season series, the Anteaters have now dropped the Gauchos two games behind first place Pacific (17-6, 8-2 Big West). More importantly, the two teams now look to be on a collision course for a rematch at the Big West Tournament, a scary proposition for a Gaucho team that saw the Anteaters end its season at last year’s tournament.
“They’ve been more disciplined, they’ve been tougher, they’ve been more physical than us and they’ve had better shot selection than us,” Williams said. “Those things usually lead to wins.”
Saturday night’s announced crowd of 3,217 was the second-biggest crowd of the season, but Joyner and the rest of the Gauchos know that it will be difficult for some fans to return after watching the heart-wrenching loss, despite the fact that the team has a chance to get back on track in a televised matchup with rival Cal Poly (9-13, 4-6 Big West) this Thursday.
“You’ve got to win games like this. I mean the crowd’s not going to come back after a disappointing loss to a team you should have beat, but it was nice having a crowd like that,” Joyner said. “I don’t think we have a choice; we have to bounce back. If we sulk about it and don’t bounce back, then our season’s a letdown.”