March Madness started a little early last night as a UCSB men’s basketball team that was all but written off in the Big West regular season title hunt extended its conference winning streak to five games and moved into a tie for first place with a dominating victory over Cal State Northridge.
The Gauchos (22-7 overall, 11-4 in the Big West) led early and held on for a 77-66 victory to pull into a three-way tie atop the conference standings, along with the Matadors (19-9, 11-4 Big West) and Cal State Fullerton (20-8, 11-4 Big West). UCSB has the advantage in the tiebreakers, and the Gauchos need only to win in Long Beach (6-23, 3-12 Big West) on Saturday to wrap up at least a share of the Big West regular season title, as well as the #1 seed in next weekends Big West Tournament.
“We got ourselves in a hole by losing some games early that we should have won, including against [Cal State Northridge] so its huge for us to come back,” sophomore guard James Powell said. “It feels really good to be back in first place.”
Senior guard Alex Harris led the way with 25 points and seven rebounds to lead four Gauchos in double-figures. Senior forward Ivan Elliott finished with 16 points, and junior forward Chris Devine and Powell chipped in 12 and 10 points respectively. Despite struggling on the boards at times this season, the Gauchos held their own last night, with six different players pulling down at least three rebounds.
UCSB came out firing and led by as many as 15 points in the first half. However the Matadors struck back and got within seven points at the half, heading into the locker rooms trailing 43-36. The second half saw similar runs with the Gauchos striking for five quick points right out of halftime to extend the lead back to 12. Like they did in the teams’ first meeting in January, the Matadors continued to follow every UCSB run with a run of their own, but it wasn’t enough as Santa Barbara held the scoring advantage in the second half as well and pulled away with the victory.
UCSB now travels to Long Beach for a crucial Big West finale, with conference seeding on the line for both teams. After the 49ers swept the season series last year, Powell doesn’t expect UCSB to take Saturday night’s game lightly.
“We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re still trying to get revenge from last year a little bit so we’ll be ready for them,” Powell said.