At this time last season, the Gauchos beat Pacific to begin a six-game winning streak that propelled the team to a Big West Championship and an NCAA tournament berth. Tonight, the Gauchos have the same chance against the Tigers (12-9 overall, 4-4 Big West) at the Thunderdome in a nationally televised game on ESPNU.
[media-credit id=20281 align=”alignright” width=”71″][/media-credit]UCSB has won two of its most important games during the regular season, upsetting the #23 UNLV Rebels on the road on Dec. 15 and rival Cal Poly at Mott Gymnasium on Jan. 27. However, the team (11-8, 4-4) has still struggled to carry its momentum from one game to the next.
“We’ve not been able to string together wins,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We feel our biggest problem is that we’re just not shooting the ball well.”
Tonight’s game comes two games after the win at Cal Poly, when junior guard James Nunnally hit a running jumper at the buzzer. The team lost to Northridge in its last game on its home court. It also lost its last game to Pacific in Stockton on Jan. 8, when the Tigers hit a shot of their own at the buzzer to take a 57-54 victory.
Although the Gauchos split their last two games, both Cal Poly and Northridge hit about 50 percent of their three-point attempts.
“We’ve been slow at making rotations,” Williams said. “We’ve had to help too much [when other teams] dribble attack.”
Junior guard Orlando Johnson, the Big West’s leading scorer, had 27 points against Pacific. He also had 28 of the Gauchos’ 69 in their last game, a loss to Northridge. He averages 20.0 points per game.
“[O.J.] got a little complacent in the middle of the season, taking a lot more jump shots, not doing the physical part of the game,” Williams said. “[But] when he does those things and goes to the glass he’s almost unstoppable.”
Nunnally, the team’s second-leading scorer with 17.4 points per game, has not been shooting as well as he was earlier this season, going 0-6 from the three-point line with seven total points against Northridge.
“We’re trying to get him to concentrate on getting to the rim and his defense,” Williams said.
Although Nunnally and Johnson combined to be one of the nation’s leading scoring duos through the first few games of the season, Johnson has been UCSB’s primary offensive threat as of late. Against the Matadors, he was the only player to score in double digits. Senior guard Jordan Weiner was the team’s second-leading scorer in that game, hitting three of his six three-point attempts for a total of nine. He averages 5.5 points per game.
Williams expects junior forward Jaimé Serna to increase his minutes as well. Serna, who has missed nearly a month of practice, is recovering from a hip flexor injury he sustained earlier this season.
“His legs are just dead. He doesn’t have the same spring,” Williams said, also claiming that the Gauchos’ win streak last season depended on Serna’s play down the stretch. “[He’s normally] a dynamic jumper who rebounds above people and is very, very quick defensively.”
The team’s 4-4 record puts it in a four-way tie for third place with Pacific and Cal Poly. Long Beach sits atop the Big West with an 8-2 conference record, followed by 5-3 Northridge.
Tipoff tonight is set for 8:30 p.m. The Gauchos will also play one more home game to complete its three-game homestand against UC Davis on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.