Just call them the comeback kids. Led by freshman forwards James Nunnally and Jaime Serna, the UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team dug itself out of a huge first half hole before snatching the lead with 13 minutes left to play and holding on in the final minutes to come out with a 66-64 victory over UC Davis (12-17, 7-8). Sixteen missed free throws and abysmal shooting from beyond the arc nearly cost the Gauchos (13-14 overall, 6-8 in the Big West) a conference win, but the home team had just enough to scratch and claw its way to its fifth win in the last six games.

“It makes the players a little grittier when they have to dig out of a hole,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They fight and continue to fight until they come all the way back.”

Things did not look good for Santa Barbara out of the gates, as the Gauchos allowed the Aggies to jump out to an early lead that ballooned to 13 points on two separate occasions in the first half. Foul trouble for two of UCSB’s premier guards, freshman Will Brew and junior Paul Roemer, further intensified an already disconcerting situation.

“I thought all of our guards came out not ready to play,” Williams said.

The guard-play may have been lacking from the get-go, but the play of Nunnally, who scored nine of his team-leading 18 points during a 16-7 Gaucho run to close the first half, allowed Santa Barbara to inch its way to within four heading into the locker room.

“Every game, [Nunnally’s] athleticism is incredible … It’s just a matter of waking him up and getting him going. Tonight, as soon as the game started, he was alert and went to work,” senior guard Nick Quick said.

The entire Gaucho lineup looked rejuvenated as play resumed after halftime, putting the pressure on with a fast-action defensive attack that set the tone in the second half.

“As we were grinding our way back, I thought our quickness was really affecting the game defensively,” Williams said. “I thought they were about ready to break, but [UC Davis Head] Coach [Gary] Stewart did a great job making an adjustment and going with a bigger lineup.”

After Serna brought the fans to their feet with a rim-rattling dunk that gave UCSB a 38-37 lead with 13 minutes left to play, the Aggie big men went to work to regain the four point advantage they had at the half.

On this night however, the freshman would not be denied. Nunnally and Serna combined to score eight of the Gauchos’ next 11 points in a stretch where Davis could only manage one field goal, giving the home team a sizeable eight point lead with less than five minutes remaining.

“It’s OK to be down in the beginning because when we get ahead, we are very protective of the lead,” Serna said.

Despite missing nine of 16 free throws in the final minutes of the game, UCSB was able to protect a once comfortable lead that dwindled all the way down to two. After two missed Santa Barbara free throws, Davis had one last chance to win the game with only three seconds remaining on the game clock, but a half court heave from Aggies’ guard Vince Oliver missed its mark.

In what quickly became a back-and-forth contest at the charity stripe, Santa Barbara’s final field goal, a three-pointer by Quick with a little less than four minutes remaining, may have been the difference in the game. With both Brew and Roemer struggling, Quick gave the Gauchos a huge lift scoring seven points in a career-high 12 minutes off the bench.

“He was given an opportunity and gave us a spark. … It really lifted the team to see him hit a couple [three pointers],” Williams said.

For a team that has relied heavily on senior forward Chris Devine for several wins this season, it was uplifting, perhaps even necessary for UCSB to come out on top with contributions from several different sources. With aspirations to finish in the top half of the Big West standings, the Gauchos will gun for wins in their final two games of the season against UC Riverside and Long Beach State, with both contests to be played in the Thunderdome.