It was a story of two halves yesterday night, and fortunately for the Gauchos, an explosive second was just good enough to make up for a lackluster first.
After converting only five field goals on the way to a 14-point first half, the UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team (6-6 overall, 1-1 Big West) rallied back to edge out a 57-53 road win against UC Riverside. Sophomore swingmen James Nunnally and Orlando Johnson starred in the conference victory, totaling 36 points while hitting several key buckets down the stretch.
“When James [Nunnally] is going like that he takes the pressure off all of us,” Johnson said. “He is a tough player to guard.”
Nunnally was the only Gaucho that could find the bottom of the net in a forgettable first period, recording a team-high six points while the rest of his running-mates combined to shoot only 13 percent from the field. But while both teams struggled early on, UCSB went ice cold over the final eight minutes of the first, missing seven straight shots before a Johnson free throw made the score 23-14 heading into the locker room.
“We couldn’t make anything [in the first], but even though we missed a lot of great looks, we stayed confident and were determined to keep playing hard,” Johnson said.
The hard work paid off in a second half that saw UCSB shoot 53 percent from the field and 67 percent from deep. A rejuvenated Gaucho lineup opened with a 14-4 run to take their first lead since being ahead 2-1, but, not to be outdone, Riverside came storming back to take a five-point lead of their own with less than seven minutes remaining.
With the home crowd in their corner, the Highlanders appeared primed to record their second straight upset after taking down Big West favorite Long Beach State. On this night however, the Nun-O.J. tandem would not be denied.
Down three with less than two minutes left on the game clock, Nunnally buried a jumper to account for the last of his 19 points. After securing a crucial rebound following sophomore center Greg Somogyi’s fifth block of the night, the Gauchos put the ball in the hands of their leading scorer down 53-52. With the game on the line, Johnson came through, railing a covered three with only 22 seconds left and the shot clock winding down.
“In that situation, you have to shoot the ball, and Orlando raised right up over his man and made that bad boy,” Nunnally said.
With a two-point advantage and UCR needing some late game heroics of their own, Johnson stole the ball and hit a pair of free throws after an intentional foul to seal the game. Though it may not have been pretty, the Gauchos managed to even their conference record and build some momentum heading back to the Thunderdome.
“This wasn’t our best game,” Johnson said. “Once we start clicking on all cylinders, people are going to have to watch out for us.”