What a difference a month can make. After being blown out by 20 points in a meeting with Long Beach State back in mid-January, UC Santa Barbara (9-3 Big West, 14-8 overall) rebounded to split the season series in a dicey 64-62 win at the Thunderdome on Saturday. Sophomore forward Jaime Serna’s season-high 17 points led the way in a game where several Gauchos played a key role.

“This was a grind out win,” sophomore guard Orlando Johnson said. “We knew that Long Beach was going to bring it, but we rose to the occasion.”

It did not look good for the home team out of the gates, as the visiting 49ers gained and maintained a lead with physical play and a dominant effort on the offensive boards. Long Beach’s swarming defense on Johnson and sophomore forward James Nunnally — UCSB’s top two scorers — limited the duo to only five points in the entire first half. Fortunately for Santa Barbara, sophomore point guard Will Brew caught fire and scored 12 points in the period to keep his team close.

“We played timid in the first half,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We didn’t have a lot of fight to our game which you need against an athletic team like [Long Beach].”

Down only three going into the second half, the Gauchos would slowly become the aggressors in an effort to turn the game around. Making up for a lackluster first half, Johnson muscled the ball inside and dropped dimes on three straight possessions to give UCSB a 39-38 lead less than four minutes in. O.J. finished the game with only 11 points but a career-high eight assists.

“[The 49ers] were taking away my scoring ability, so I decided to step up and make the right decisions by finding my teammates,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s unselfishness infused life into a Santa Barbara squad that refocused its energy down low. Sophomore center Greg Somogyi joined forces with Serna in controlling the paint, finishing the game with seven points, six rebounds and five blocks off the bench.

“It was really a night where other players were needed, and those players stepped up,” Williams said. “Big [Somogyi] changed the game inside and that really keyed our defensive effort in the second half.”

In a game that saw five ties and seven lead changes, both teams had the momentum swing in their favor coming down the stretch. Leading by as much as five and trailing by no more than six, the Gauchos found themselves down one with less than four minutes remaining. With his team in need of a big shot, junior guard Jordan Weiner delivered the dagger only seconds after checking back into game, nailing a three-pointer to send the 3,000-plus fans in attendance into a frenzy.

“It felt so good with everyone yelling and screaming,” Weiner said. “I look over at my Dad and he’s pumping his fist like he’s on the ‘Jersey Shore.'”

Even with the crowd behind them, Santa Barbara could not stop LBSU from wiping away its lead as the 49ers tied it at 62 after a pair of made free throws. Not for the faint of heart, the Gauchos reclaimed a two-point edge behind subpar 2-for-6 free throwing from Nunnally and Johnson.

With one last chance, Long Beach drove the ball down the length of the court with seven seconds left but failed to get off a shot as the buzzer expired.

“We can’t be having these lapses where we turn it off and turn it on,” Johnson said. “Once it starts clicking through all 40 [minutes], that’s the team that’s going to be scary.”

With the win, Santa Barbara moves into first place in the Big West standings for the first time this season.