Trailing by two points with the game clock winding down, junior shooting guard James Powell took the inbounds pass from freshman point guard Will Brew and sunk a clutch three-pointer as the buzzer sounded, paying tribute to his game winning three against UNLV that sent the Thunderdome into pandemonium a little over a year ago.
Unfortunately for Powell and UCSB (6-8 overall, 0-2 in the Big West), this shot from beyond the arc was released just a second after the end of regulation and was waived off, giving the Gauchos a heartbreaking 71-69 road loss to UC Riverside (9-4 overall, 2-0 in the Big West) only two days after falling at Long Beach State (7-7 overall, 2-0 in the Big West) in their conference opener.
“I knew the shot was after the buzzer, but I wasn’t too upset with that play,” Powell said. “It was more upsetting to be in that position at the end of the game after giving up the lead we had built up.”
Led by senior forward Chris Devine who had racked up 16 points and six rebounds by halftime, UCSB shot above the 50 percent clip in the first half on the way to a 12 point lead going into the locker room. After scoring the first basket of the second period, the Highlanders’ defensive intensity stepped it up and forced eight Gaucho turnovers in the midst of a 17-2 run that allowed them to claim the lead at 49-48.
“We did not come out as fired up as Riverside in the second half,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They took over the game with their physical play, and it was just enough to edge us in the end.”
Though Long Beach and Riverside finished last season as the bottom feeders of the conference with a combined seven wins against Big West opponents, both teams have proven themselves early as potential threats to a Santa Barbara team looking to repeat as the #1 seed in the Big West tournament.
“They [LBS and UCR] returned a lot of players and added key newcomers that have contributed a great deal in our losses,” Williams said. “If you’re going to be in the hunt, you have to win at home, and both of them succeeded in that regard.”
Though the majority of the Gaucho players struggled offensively on their two-game road trip, neither Long Beach nor Riverside could stop Devine from asserting his offensive dominance, dropping 20 points against the 49ers before tying a season high with 24 points to go with eight rebounds against the Highlanders.
“He’s just an animal down low and it shows with these numbers,” Powell said. “We haven’t been shooting it too well from three so going into him is always a good idea.”
If the Gauchos hope to turn things around against a Big West that looks more evenly balanced than in previous years, they will need more balanced scoring from their starting lineup, namely Powell, who has struggled with his shot for most of the young season.
“James is one of our main players and just needs to build some confidence to break out of his shooting funk,” Williams said.
Santa Barbara’s quest to get a notch in the win column will not get any easier, as their next game comes against UC Irvine Thursday night at 8 p.m. at the Thunderdome. The Anteaters have had the UCSB’s number in the past, knocking them out of the last two Big West tournaments as the underdog. After dropping their first two games in the Big West, the Gauchos will go into their home opener as the underdog as they begin their uphill climb toward the top of the Big West standings.
“We already have lots of motivation going in trying to avoid going 0-3,” Powell said. “The fact that they’ve ended our season the past couple years is just going to fuel us even more.”