Sometimes, all it takes is a little extra motivation. After being benched to start the second half, sophomore forward James Nunnally exploded with 16 second half points — including 14 of his team’s 20 during one stretch — to lead UC Santa Barbara (9-7 overall, 4-2 Big West) to a 63-56 victory over UC Riverside (7-10, 1-4) Saturday night in the Thunderdome.
“You always want one of your [team’s] better players to respond like that,” sophomore guard Orlando Johnson said of Nunnally. “He came out aggressive and focused on trying to win the game.”
With Nunnally waiting in the wings to start the second half, the Highlanders took control as they tried to steal one on the road. Led by All-Big West First Teamer Kyle Austin who finished the game with 25 points, Riverside put together a 9-0 run to overcome Santa Barbara’s halftime deficit, taking the lead at 37-36.
With UCSB’s offense at a stand still, Head Coach Bob Williams could sit Nunnally no longer. Promptly after checking back into the game, the versatile swingman went on a tear, joining forces with Johnson to score the team’s next 20 points with an array of jumpers, three-pointers and drives to the hoop that rewarded them with trips to the charity stripe.
“I just wanted to help the team do whatever we needed to win,” Nunnally said.
“I had to show Coach [Williams] that I could come out and play harder.”
After a stagnant start to the second half, the effort came rushing back after Nunnally’s late entrance, epitomized by his own tip-slam off a missed three to give Santa Barbara a seven point lead with 7:22 left in the game.
“We need to play like the game’s on the line all the way through,” Nunnally said.
“If we can play like the first half is the second [half], our close wins can turn into blowouts.”
Though the Gauchos’ seven point lead grew to as much as 10, their primary focus remained keeping UCR at bay down the stretch. Though the Highlanders got within five twice in the final minute of play, strong free-throw shooting when it mattered allowed the home team to come away with their fourth win in five games.
“Learning how to get that killer instinct and close things out is something that we’re still working on,” senior guard James Powell said. “We’re a young team, but we’re getting better at [holding leads] with every game.”
In a matchup of two of the top three defensive teams in the Big West, it was not the prettiest game of basketball by any rights with 17 turnovers on each side. That being said, UCSB — now 3-0 in the Thunderdome — did just enough to hold down the home court and strengthen their standing among the top teams in conference.
“We take pride at defending our house,” Johnson said. “Every time we step out there we make sure we get it done.”