Already having secured a first round bye in the Big West Tournament, the Gauchos head into tonight’s regular season finale against UC Irvine with a new challenge: to clinch the conference crown and tournament #1 seed with a win.
“We win this game and we go into the tournament on a high,” senior guard James Powell said. “We know we already have a bye, but everybody in the locker room has their mind set on finishing first.”
Playing in the Thunderdome, the odds are stacked for UC Santa Barbara (17-9 overall, 11-4 Big West), a team that has gone a perfect 7-0 in conference games at home. That being said, the Gauchos did drop their conference opener against UCI (13-16, 5-9) and have historically struggled against the Anteaters, particularly in postseason play.
“Irvine’s always been a tough team to play against, but if we can match their physicality, I feel like we have the talent to win,” Powell said.
UCSB’s long-range dexterity has been its offensive trademark all season, but after failing to convert from the outside in the final stretch of a surprising 60-57 loss to Cal Poly on Saturday, the Gauchos will aim to reestablish their inside game against Irvine.
“In practice we’ve been working on playing from the inside out and not from the perimeter in,” Powell said. “If we can push it inside, [Irvine’s] defense should collapse and give us some open looks.”
Although he is listed as a guard, sophomore Orlando Johnson should lead the charge into the paint with a physical style of play that has him average nearly seven free throws a game. Johnson is currently second in Big West in scoring, averaging 17.9 ppg in a quest for the Big West Player of the Year award. Sophomore forward James Nunnally is also a top-10 scorer in conference, but has failed to reach double digits in two of his last three games.
“[Opposing] defenses have been keying in on him lately,” Johnson said of Nunnally. “If we can help him get it going early we know he can have a big game.”
While the sophomore duo fuels the offensive attack, a pair of seniors will undoubtedly be playing with emotions running high in their final home contest for the blue and gold. Powell and guard Paul Roemer will be honored prior to tip-off, and should make key contributions off the bench come game time.
Powell is third on the team with an 8.7 ppg average playing as a starter and sixth man, and is second in school history with 210 three-pointers made. Roemer has missed the majority of conference play due to injury, but had a solid junior campaign with per game averages of four points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal.
“I would love to see both of them out there playing together … they deserve it,” Johnson said. “They’ve meant so much to this program and have been nothing but great leaders in my time here.”
If the Gauchos can execute their game plan, they will not only regain momentum heading into the conference tournament, but will become the favorites in another run for March Madness.
“I believe in this team,” Johnson said. “I think if we stay together and stay believing in what Coach has taught us from day one, the sky’s the limit.”