Though their last pair of games resulted in wins over Big West contenders Pacific and UC Davis, the Gauchos are not ready to celebrate just yet. On tap for UC Santa Barbara (13-8 overall, 8-3 Big West) this weekend is a date with Long Beach State (11-12, 5-5) — the only conference opponent to dominate them this season — set for Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Thunderdome.
“Being a young team, we’ve struggled with handling success,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “A key to that is staying grounded, making sure we’re humble but hungry so we can realize it’s the great effort we put on the floor that brings us success.”
The success came quickly for the Santa Barbara team that opened up a three-game win streak after losing their conference opener against UC Irvine. But, as Williams alluded to, UCSB’s winning ways came to a sudden halt on the road against Long Beach. Fueled by poor shooting and a season-high 29 turnovers, the Gauchos suffered an embarrassing 67-47 loss.
Nearly a month later, UCSB has matured extensively and received welcome additions off the injured list. Junior point guard Justin Joyner, who the Gauchos have been without for eight games this season, recorded a team-high eight assists against Davis his last time out.
“We’re a better basketball team than the last time we played them,” Williams said. “We’re deeper and have done a better job taking care of the ball.”
With improved team chemistry, Santa Barbara should be able to avoid the mistakes that allowed the Long Beach State 49ers to run away with the game back in January.
“The most important thing is handling their defensive pressure,” Joyner said. “If we can get the ball inside and win our matchups with Orlando [Johnson] and [James] Nunnally, I don’t see why we shouldn’t win.”
The sophomore swingmen that Joyner mentioned have been offensive mainstays for the Gauchos in their recent climb to the top of the Big West standings. Johnson currently leads the Big West in scoring with 17.8 points per game while Nunnally has entered the top 10 with gaudy performances like his last showing in Davis — 24 points, six rebounds and four assists with perfect 4-for-4 shooting from three.
Equally important to getting their offense going will be limiting the offensive attack of Long Beach. The 49er Big Three — forwards T.J. Robinson and Casper Ware and guard Larry Anderson — all hit double figures in their home blow out of UCSB. Robinson, the top rebounder in the conference, also pulled down a game-high 12 boards.
“We need to pay attention to all of them, but mainly Robinson,” Joyner said. “We can’t shut him down, but we can limit his opportunities inside.”
The last time these teams met in the Thunderdome, it took a buzzer-beating three from Nunnally to give Santa Barbara the win. With any luck, tomorrow’s contest will not require any late-game heroics.
“We have a lot on the line,” Williams said. “Winning our remaining three home games is pivotal to locking up the number one seed for the Big West tournament.”
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. at the Thunderdome, and tickets for students are free.