Up by more than 20 points almost midway through the second half, the Gauchos had the game in the bag against Big West bottom-feeder Cal State Northridge — or so they thought.
The visiting Matadors turned it on after a heinous first half to get within two in the final minute, but first-place UC Santa Barbara (11-3 Big West, 17-8 overall) staved off a miraculous comeback to pull out a 74-69 win last night at the Thunderdome.
“We don’t want to play like that. We don’t want to take chances like that. … We don’t want to win like that,” senior guard James Powell said.
Led by an invigorating second half from sophomore guard Orlando Johnson, who scored eight of UCSB’s 10 unasnwered points during one stretch, the Gauchos inflated their lead to 47-21 with 13:48 left on the clock. Johnson recovered from a four-point first half to finish with 19 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
“In the first half, I didn’t assert myself, and the shots I was taking weren’t strong,” Johnson said. “I started to be more aggressive in the second half, and once I got to the line, I hit all of my free throws.”
With the game seemingly out of reach, the Matadors began their charge. With the help of a stifling full-court press, CSUN forced nine Gaucho turnovers over the next eight minutes to pull within single digits, trailing 59-50 with five minutes to go.
“Was I disappointed in how we handled that eight minutes stretch? Yeah, I was disappointed,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “One of the goals this group has is to be consistent through 40 [minutes], and we weren’t.”
The final minutes would continue to be dominated by whistles in a game with 55 personal fouls between both teams. To Santa Barbara’s credit, they finished the game 25-for-34 from the line (73.5 percent) compared to Northridge’s paltry 58 percent free-throw shooting.
“That’s kind of the way it is when you play Northridge,” Williams said of foul calls. “They knew they had to get to the rim and get fouled. … They did a good job of keeping us on our heels defensively.”
Though their overall free foul shooting left much to be desired, big hits from the charity stripe coming down the stretch allowed the Matadors to get within striking distance, pulling them within two with 24 seconds left in the game.
Fortunately for the Gauchos, the player intentionally fouled off the ensuing inbounds pass was none other than Powell, who knocked down a pair of clutch free throws for the second straight game. The veteran guard finished with 17 points off the bench.
“That’s just big-game James,” Johnson said of his teammate. “He’s been doing this for a long time. … We believe in him all the way when he steps up [to the free throw line].”
Down four and in need of a bucket, CSUN stayed true to its second-half strategy and looked down low. But as Northridge forward Willie Gallick went up with it, Johnson came skying in for the rejection on a shot that sophomore forward Jaime Serna also got a piece of.
“Aw man, that was me right there baby,” Johnson said in reaction to the box score that gave Serna credit for the block.
It wasn’t their most impressive outing by any means, but in the end, it was another UCSB win as the Gauchos go up two games on second-place Pacific in the win column.