It’s amazing how much of a difference extra work can make.
The UCSB men’s basketball team, who often had trouble closing out games earlier this season, has now parlayed better conditioning into an impressive four-game winning streak after a thrilling 78-71 overtime win over Montana State Saturday night. The Gauchos (12-13 overall, 5-7 Big West) trailed by as much as 11 in the first half, but exploded in the final 10 minutes of the match to tie things up at the very end of regular time and eventually snatch the win.
“We’re getting better,” senior forward Chris Devine said. “We’re in better shape, which helps a lot. I think in the first half we thought we were in shape, but we weren’t. We were really running out of gas towards the end. It takes a while to get the feel of how to play at this level and how to finish games. [The freshmen are] coming around, they’re playing really well.”
Devine led the Gauchos with 20 points, a plateau he has reached in the Gauchos’ last three games. Although he opened up the game with a pair of misses and a turnover, Devine was able to bounce back and pick up some heat down the stretch. The overtime period saw his most intense play of the match, where he hit all three of his shots and a free throw to score seven of Santa Barbara’s 11 points. He also led a UCSB defense that didn’t allow the Bobcats a single made field goal in the extra period, and capped off the win in the final seconds with a thunderous block on a three-point attempt that sent the ball six rows deep into the crowd.
“I wasn’t shooting it very well at all, and I don’t really know why,” Devine said. “I just felt that the only way to beat that is to keep shooting. The second I stop shooting I’m totally limited. I didn’t feel like I really played different necessarily from the game to overtime, but my shots were going in. ”
Devine was superb in overtime, but it took a powerful performance from the Gaucho bench to actually get them there. Freshman forward James Nunnally went nuts in the final eight minutes of the game, notching eight points, three boards and a big-time assist. The dime came from a super-clean dish to Devine that led to a three-point play and the Gauchos’ first lead at 60-59 with 4:08 to go. Then, with UCSB down 65-67 and holding possession with 43 seconds to go, Nunnally picked up a missed shot from junior guard James Powell, who attacked the lane hard and put it back in to send things into overtime. Overall, Nunnally had 14 points, five boards and four assists, all making big impacts in the game.
“I wasn’t playing up to my potential in the first half, I don’t know what the reason was,” Nunnally said. “I just didn’t come prepared to play. Coach kept challenging me, he needed me, and I saw that the team needed everybody we have so I had to do my part. I had to bring momentum off the bench.”
Also instrumental in closing out the regulation period was junior guard Jordan Weiner, who hit a huge trey with under a minute to go off of a clean assist from Powell. Overall, SB shot 7-16 from downtown, including three very deep ones from Powell, but none were more important than Weiner’s, which brought UCSB within two of the Bobcats at 65-67. In the previous play, Weiner’s man blew past him, forcing a foul and a three-point play. After the game, Weiner said that all he wanted to do was immediately answer.
“I really felt like I let the team down by letting him score so I felt I had to get it back,” Weiner said. “Coach said that if I was open, shoot the ball. That’s what he always tells me.”
Head Coach Bob Williams said that the comeback win shows how much his team’s mentality and ability to play has improved so far this season, especially considering the fact that the team is very young.
“It’s a big game for these kids to come back, play their first overtime game of the year, win it, have to make shots down the regulation, have to make stops in regulation and overtime,” Williams said. “We had to do a lot of things correct at the end to get to overtime, and then we did a lot of things correct in overtime to win it. That’s hopeful on a night where I don’t think we played with the same energy we have in our last five league games.”
Williams said that the best thing about where the team is at right now is the positive attitude that has returned to the Gauchos. After a very rough first part of the season, much of it on the road, he said he is very happy with how his team has rebounded in the past few weeks.
“I’m excited that different players are stepping up; it gives us more confidence, and it gives them more confidence,” Williams said. “I think as a group they feel better about themselves, and that’s a great thing. It’s more fun to be around, and we’re into a stretch drive right here. Who knows what can happen. We just have to keep playing.”