With six games left on its schedule, the UCSB men’s basketball team enters the final stretch of the regular season in hopes of finishing atop the Big West Conference standings. In order to do so, the Gauchos might have to win out the rest of their games beginning with a pair of home contests against UC Riverside tonight and Cal State Fullerton on Saturday.

Santa Barbara currently sits in second place in the Big West with a 16-7 overall record and 7-3 mark in the conference, one game behind first-place UC Irvine. Entering the final stretch of the season, the pressure is on the Gauchos to continue its recent strong play, but this time without any letdowns late in games.

“We have to win out now. Not only do we need to, but we should win out,” sophomore guard Michael Bryson said. “If we want to be the best team in this league, which we have the expectation of being, then we need to show that we are by winning all these games. Right now we’re in a good position, we have our fate in our hands.”

Tonight when the Gauchos take on Riverside at the Thunderdome, they are hoping for a repeat performance of their first half against the Highlanders in a Jan. 23 victory. In that contest, UCSB took an 11-point lead and built it to an eventual 17-point advantage in the second half. The Gauchos struggled to close out the game, however, allowing Riverside to creep back and send the game to overtime before an eventual 68-65 victory avoided an epic collapse.

“We’ve had several of these this year where we’ve had leads and we’ve let things slip away. We have to develop more of a killer instinct to finish games,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We have to get hungrier in terms of our approach to each game and how we play for 40 minutes in the game. All of a sudden we’re up and you see us relax a little bit and that’s a dangerous habit to be falling into.”

Closing out games has become a major area of concern for Santa Barbara and hurt the team in last Saturday’s 80-78 overtime loss to Cal State Northridge despite holding a seven-point lead with just over a minute remaining in regulation.

In Saturday’s loss, UCSB failed to score in the final two minutes of overtime and turned the ball over 18 times during the entire contest. Turnovers will certainly be a key to Thursday’s contest as Riverside ranks last in the Big West with over 13 turnovers committed per game, compared to second-best UCSB with 11.4 per game.

“In that Northridge game, there were certain plays we didn’t run and we didn’t do all the tasks that we needed to do to win that game and it came back to bite us,” junior center Alan Williams said. “We’ve really got to focus up on that and be more mentally tough and I think we’ll be fine.”

Riverside enters the contest with an 8-17 overall record and 3-8 mark in conference play, which places the team last in the Big West standings. The Highlanders are currently on a three-game losing streak at the hands of three of the top teams in the conference in Long Beach, Hawaii and Irvine.

“Hopefully we just come out and we try to assert ourselves more consistently throughout a 40-minute game instead of the lapses that we’ve been having,” Coach Williams said. “Hopefully our familiarity is good with them, but I think they’re a better team. They’re a better team now than they were earlier this year.”

Leading the Highlanders will be a pair of forwards in senior Chris Patton and sophomore Taylor Johns. Patton leads the team with 13.3 points per game, while Johns trails right behind at 13.1 per game. Johns also ranks third in the conference with 8.2 rebounds per game.

UCSB enters the game ranked No. 13 in College Insider’s Mid-Major poll, powered by the play of Big Al. Williams ranks ninth in the nation in scoring at 22.7 points per game and is second in the country with 11.5 rebounds per game.

Playing well as of late for the Gauchos is point guard Zalmico Harmon who ranks third in the nation with a 4.07 assist to turnover ratio. Against Northridge, the junior scored a career-high 21 points, dished out eight assists and committed only one turnover.

“If we play our game, we’re able to beat anybody in this league,” Bryson said. “When we get let down is when we start kind of being nonchalant with our actions and nonchalant with our execution, so I think if we really play 40 minutes of basketball … we’ll come out with a win.”

Tip-off for Thursday’s contest at the Thunderdome is scheduled for 7 p.m.


A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 8 of February 20, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.