Big game James has done it again. Playing for the final time in the Thunderdome, senior guard James Powell hit a pair of clutch free throws with 14 seconds left to help UC Santa Barbara (18-9 overall, 12-4 in the Big West) hold off UC Irvine (13-17, 5-10) in a 77-74 win that clinches a #1 seed for the Gauchos heading into the Big West Tournament.
“At the end of the game, there’s nobody we would rather have at the foul line than James Powell,” Head Coach Bob Williams said.
Leading by one with only 18 seconds left on the clock, sophomore guard Orlando Johnson fouled Irvine junior guard Patrick Rembert on the second of his two missed free throws, giving the Anteaters a chance to steal a game they had not led since early in the first half.
Fortunately for the Gauchos, Rembert failed to convert on the front end of a one-and-one, allowing Powell to secure the defensive rebound and a three-point UCSB advantage after nailing both of his attempts from the line. Looking to extend the game into overtime, Irvine’s Eric Wise rimmed out a last second three, effectively giving Santa Barbara a perfect 8-0 conference record at home.
“It was a night where we couldn’t defensively put the clamps on [Irvine] in the second half, so it was very much needed for us to make free throws down the stretch,” Williams said.
Despite leading by as much as 16 in the second period, it took late heroics from several players to secure a victory in the team’s regular season finale. After the Anteaters cut the lead to 67-65 with less than four minutes to go, Johnson answered with a big bucket and followed it up with two made free throws to put the finishing touches on another impressive 20-point effort. Sophomore forward James Nunnally also sank a pair of crucial freebies in the final minute to finalize a 22-point, seven-assist and four-rebound performance — his most complete game in recent memory.
“We would have liked to finish the game a little more decisively,” Powell said. “As good as it feels, we don’t want to win like that. If we’re up 15-20 points we don’t want the other team to get as close as [Irvine] did.”
Though it was not their prettiest win, it was at the least a proper send-off for Powell and guard Paul Roemer, Santa Barbara’s two graduating seniors. Powell sank four three-point baskets to move him within three of the all-time school record, and finished the game with 16 points off the bench.
“He’s a clutch player and a proven leader,” Nunnally said of Powell. “I know he will do anything to win.”
Powell certainly did his part to help the Gauchos take down the top seed for the first time since the 2007-08 season. The fact that the clincher came against UC Irvine, a team that has always hounded UCSB during his career, makes the win just a little sweeter.
“After they beat us in all those straight games, beating [Irvine] feels almost as good as cutting down the nets [after the game],” Powell said.
Though Santa Barbara has nine days to enjoy the spoils of victory, the team knows that they have a long way to go, as winning the Big West Tournament is their only ticket into March Madness.
“We’ve talked the whole year about playing for something more than this … we want to be dancing with the best teams in the country,” Johnson said.