On a night when four seniors took the Thunderdome floor for the final time, it was a sophomore who stole the spotlight.
James Powell opened the game with nine points in the first five minutes, and finished with a game-high 24 points to lead UCSB (21-7 overall, 10-4 in the Big West) to a 73-55 victory over UC Riverside (7-19 overall, 3-11 in the Big West) on Senior Night. The sophomore guard made a habit of picking up his points in threes, going seven-of-eight from beyond the arc and padding his scoring total with an old-fashioned three-point play on a driving layup early in the first half.
“More than anything, I just had good looks, and [sophomore guard Justin Joyner] did a good job of finding me tonight and fortunately for me, the ball just happened to go in the basket,” Powell said. “It’s not really all me at all. My teammates do a great job of executing.”
Riding the emotion of a pre-game ceremony for the four departing seniors, UCSB jumped out to a 25-12 lead, but a technical foul on the crowd halted the Gauchos’ momentum and finally got the Highlanders going offensively. With 5:26 remaining in the first half, play was stopped after a tortilla was thrown onto the floor, and following a warning from the P.A. announcer, a member of the UCSB men’s water polo team was ejected from the arena for throwing another tortilla. The action resulted in a technical, and after Riverside senior Larry Cunningham drained both free throws, the Highlanders drilled a three-pointer for a rare five-point possession. Despite the technical, senior guard Alex Harris was happy to see the biggest crowd of the year getting into the game.
“I loved it, it was great. But I know that if we had lost by two points, it would have been his fault,” Harris said. “You know the soccer team plays through [tortillas]. I’m sure other sports are used to playing right through it, but in basketball, we’re not exposed to it as much.”
With momentum on its side, UCR went on a 14-3 run to cut the Gaucho lead to two, but Joyner got the crowd of 3,649 right back into the game by banking a fadeaway three-pointer at the first-half buzzer. The point guard’s only shot of the night was a big one, sending UCSB into the locker rooms with a 33-27 lead. Santa Barbara came out firing in the second half, and with its shots falling and the defensive intensity ratcheted up a notch, the Gauchos went on a 17-3 run in the first eight minutes of the half to put the game out of reach.
“We just wanted to get back to what we were doing and take our time and get good shots,” senior forward Ivan Elliott said. “We wanted to slow down, because we can get any shot we want against them.”
Playing with what Head Coach Bob Williams described as a “frohawk,” Elliott closed out his career at the Thunderdome in style, finishing with an efficient 16 points, on six-of-seven shooting. The team’s leading rebounder did most of his damage on the offensive glass, pulling down a game-high four offensive rebounds and scoring the majority of UCSB’s 14 second-chance points.
With his storied career at UCSB winding down, Harris made sure to soak in every moment of his final home game. Following a long standing ovation during the pre-game ceremony, he struggled to find his focus on the floor at times, but still managed to contribute heavily to the win, with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“I didn’t play my best game, but I was still having so much fun out there,” Harris said. “Nothing could break the enjoyment or the happiness of the night. This night was about more than stats and [wins]. It was bigger than just a game, and I’ll remember a lot more than just what happened on the court.”
With a double-digit contingent of family, former coaches and friends – including Los Angeles Lakers assistant and Gaucho legend Brian Shaw – in the house to support him, Harris did what he’s done so often this season: He reached another scoring milestone. A three-pointer early in the second half made him the second player in school history to cross the 1,600 point mark, and he ended the night needing just 75 points to break Carrick DeHart’s school scoring record.
“Alex is a great athlete, and records are made to be broken,” DeHart said. “He represents Gaucho basketball to the fullest, and he’s put the guys on his shoulders. He holds the [Gaucho] name very well.”
On a day when a fight broke out in the UCSB-UC Riverside women’s basketball game, things got a little chippy in the men’s game as well. Five minutes into the second half, junior forward Chris Devine and Highlander forward B.J. Visman fought for a loose ball, and after a foul call on Devine, Visman appeared to kick him as the play ended. Harris and senior forward Nedim Pajevic got in Visman’s face before order was restored, with Visman and Pajevic both receiving technicals.
“There was jawing, and you saw Nedim’s jaw. It was swollen and the thing was hurting him, so he had to get some pressure off of it I guess,” Williams said.
Pajevic and forward Beau Gibb joined Harris and Elliott as the four honorees of Senior Night. Neither Pajevic nor Gibb did much in the box score, but they can both take solace in the fact that their caricatures on the traditional Senior Night t-shirts were considerably more accurate than those of their fellow seniors.
“I’m really proud of them as men. I’m proud of the growth they’ve had, and I’m proud that they’re all going to graduate,” Williams said. “They’ve been a tremendous group to be around and travel with and, let me tell you, Nedim [Pajevic] and Al [Harris] and Ivan [Elliott] are just hilarious to travel with. I mean they are fun, upbeat funny kids, and so from that standpoint, they’ve been phenomenal and Beau [Gibb] has been as good a teammate as you can have. It’s as good a group of seniors in that realm as you can have.”
The victory coupled with Cal State Northridge’s loss means the Gauchos now control their own fate in terms of securing a top-two seed and a bye into the Big West Tournament semifinals. The Gauchos and Matadors (19-8, 11-3 Big West) face off on Thursday night in Northridge in a battle for first place and rematch of an 88-84 Matadors win on Jan. 5.
“We tried to get ourselves headed into the last week with some control over our destiny, and we’ve accomplished that,” Williams said. “Now we just have to take care of business hopefully in this last week.”