The rivalry just got heated. With identical Big West records and sole possession of second place on the line, UC Santa Barbara (10-7 overall, 5-2 Big West) welcomes Cal Poly (8-10, 5-2) into the Thunderdome at 7 p.m. with both squads seeking to solidify their spot among the conference elite.
“Right now every game in conference is the biggest game of the year, but us having the same record makes it even bigger,” junior guard Justin Joyner said.
The Gauchos have plenty of momentum going in after a thrilling 85-80 overtime victory against Fullerton, a game in which sophomore guard Orlando Johnson nailed a game-tying three with only 3.4 seconds left in regulation.
UCSB has had a flair for the dramatic all season, inching past first-place Pacific 68-67 on Jan. 10, less than a week after using late-game heroics to trump UC Riverside 67-63. While the wins have not come easy, repeated conference tests have built character for a young team still establishing its identity.
“We’re learning as a team, and it’s all starting to come together,” senior guard James Powell said. “Everyone’s understanding their roles and embracing them no matter what they call for.”
The role of both Johnson (17.2 ppg) and sophomore forward James Nunnally (13.8 ppg) in recent games has been clear: score and score often. Both players are coming off career-highs in points with 27 and 25, respectively. Nunnally in particular had a breakout game against the Titans, adding 10 rebounds and four assists while shooting 60 percent from the field and 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Powell (9.1 ppg) also played a key role, contributing five of his 14 points and two steals in OT.
“We’re expecting a big performance from all of them,” Joyner said. “Cal Poly likes to go small, which should give Orlando and [Nunnally] an advantage with their size, but [Powell] has the hot hand and could find a lot of open jumpers against their zone [defense].”
The key objective for UCSB’s own zone-D will be taking out Cal Poly’s dynamic backcourt of senior Lorenzo Keeler (15.1 ppg), junior Shawn Lewis (10.4 ppg) and sharp-shooting freshman Kyle Odister (8.3 ppg).
“Keeler’s one of the leading scorers in the conference, so if we shut him down we slow down their entire offense,” Powell said.
With wins in 10 of their last 11 home games against Cal Poly, the Gauchos are not accustomed to challenging their central coast adversaries for much more than bragging rights. But with the Mustang’s turnaround this year, the stakes have been raised as the Blue-Green rivalry prepares for tip-off.