Hoping to get back on track heading into Big West play, the UCSB men’s basketball team failed to do so as the Gauchos dropped their conference opener to UC Irvine on Saturday night. Santa Barbara lost to the Anteaters 57-55 in a hard-fought game on the road in Irvine. UCI, who was picked to finish ninth in the Big West preseason poll, improved to 7-6 overall and 1-0 in conference play, while Santa Barbara, who was picked to finish second in the conference, fell to 5-6 overall and 0-1 in Big West play.

“It’s just disappointing,” said sophomore forward James Nunnally.

With the lead changing several times throughout the first twenty minutes, Santa Barbara held the largest advantage of the first half at 24-20 with roughly three minutes remaining. UCI would battle back and go into the locker room with a halftime lead of 27-24. In the second half, Irvine never looked back, maintaining the lead for all 20 minutes. Down by as many as 12 with eight minutes remaining, and plagued by poor three-point shooting (2-of-12), Santa Barbara struggled to string points together to mount a serious comeback.

The Gauchos were able to claw back in the final minutes, but ultimately it was not enough. Two free throws by the Anteaters with seven seconds left effectively put the game out of reach for Santa Barbara, although senior guard Paul Roemer hit a three as time expired to move the final count to 57-55.

The Gauchos were led by sophomore guard Orlando Johnson, who had a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds. Johnson, who was selected as a preseason All-Big West team member, is currently second in the conference with a scoring average of 16.8 points per game.

Sophomore forward Eric Wise, also a preseason All-Big West selection, led Irvine with 21 points, including 17 in the second half, on 8-of-11 shooting. Wise is currently fifth in the conference with a scoring average of 15.8 points per game. Senior guard Michael Hunter also added 16 points for the Anteaters.

This latest loss for the Gauchos is only the most recent in a disappointing month that has seen Santa Barbara drop six of its last seven games. Outscored by a margin of 9.8 points per game over this stretch, UCSB has suffered losses to some quality teams, including a loss to preseason Pac-10 favorite California on Dec. 29 in the championship game of the Golden Bear Classic.

“There’s definitely a lot of things we can improve on,” Nunnally said of the team’s recent struggles. “We need to be a lot more physical and a lot tougher.”

After advancing to the championship game in the Classic with a win over Furman (7-6, 1-1), in which Nunnally set a new career-high with 24 points, the Gauchos would go on to lose to the host school 87-66. In that game, Johnson filled up the stat sheet with 17 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and three blocks. Additionally, sophomore center Greg Somogyi had by far his most effective game of the year, setting season highs with 21 minutes, 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. This type of game, on the road, in a hostile environment, against a top-25 caliber team is sure to pay dividends for the Gauchos later in the year.

“We definitely gained some good experience, especially from that game,” Nunnally said. “They are a really good team that makes you pay for your mistakes. We can and will take that game and learn from it.”

Although the Gauchos have struggled as of late, the team still feels that momentum can change on a game-to-game basis and there is no reason to panic.

“You have to take it one game at a time,” Nunnally said. “We just have to get back on track and get this win at Riverside tomorrow and continue to work hard and continue to improve.”

Tonight, the Gauchos will travel to Riverside for their second conference game of the year. Santa Barbara will hope to even its Big West record against the Highlanders (7-6, 1-0), who beat preseason Big West favorite Long Beach State in their Big West opener 69-67 in a thrilling overtime game.