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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 5:52 pm | Mostly Cloudy 51º

Sports: A Noozhawk Partnership with Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table, The Lab, and American Riviera Bank

Gauchos Team Up to Pound Utah Valley State, 81-61

UCSB's 9-1 record is program's hottest start since 1988.

The Thunderdome hasn’t seen such a sweet start for the UCSB men’s basketball team since 1988, but it got even sweeter Friday in an 81-61 win over Utah Valley State. The Gauchos’ seventh-straight victory improved their record to 9-1.

For head coach Bob Williams, it’s not just the number of wins, but how his team is playing that is mighty tasty.

“There are a lot of things I’m proud of right now, but I am most proud of the physical effort we’re showing," he said. "We’re thriving on playing hard. Every one of us.”

So far this season, that effort has been most visible in the Gauchos’ up-tempo defense that has worn down opponents and forced an average of 21 turnovers per game. The painful pace of playing that defense requires total effort and total buy-in, and the players have paid it. It’s crippled opponents and fortified the Gauchos even when their offense has faltered.

Against Utah Valley State (3-6), the Gauchos’ offense was the dynamo. Of UCSB’s 27 baskets, 20 came off assists. That’s the product of a team playing for each other and it breeds a durable faith in the team concept. Justin Joyner contributed seven of those assists with only one turnover, while nailing two three-pointers himself. Six-foot-nine-inch Nedim Pajevic added three assists, twice feeding Chris Devine perfectly placed interior passes for buckets.

Devine had four assists as well, including one that led to the climax of the night’s prettiest play. Seven crisp passes — on the perimeter, whipping inside, then back out — outmaneuvered the Wolverines’ zone and finally found Devine in the paint who hit Alex Harris for a pure three-pointer. The bench rose together and erupted in celebration.

“That was just a really good basketball play,“ said Devine. “That’s what it’s all about."

Williams called it “the best offensive series all year. The ball movement, the unselfishness, ending in a naked three for Alex. It was just beautiful.”

Harris was beautiful … all night long … leading the team with 25 points and hitting six of eight from beyond the arc.

“His percentages are ridiculous,” smiled Williams. “He’s what everybody comes to shut down every night, but can’t. He has the best work ethic of any of the other great shooters we’ve ever had, still shooting late after practice is over. He’s incredible.”

No less incredible is Utah Valley State’s Ryan Toolson, who shared high-point honors with 25.

“He’s not a good shooter, he’s a great shooter,” Williams observed. “He makes it look so effortless, his mechanics are perfect. When he makes a few shots you start thinking that he’s just going to make them all.”

From the free-throw line he nearly does. Toolson was 97 percent from the line last season and is at 94 percent so far this year, and was five for five Friday. He’s now averaging 20 points a game but no teammate averages in double figures.

The Gauchos’ offense was balanced and productive. Devine and James Powell had 12, Ivan Elliot 11, Joyner eight, and steadily improving Paul Roemer four.

But this team is not about individual point production, it’s about team. It’s what all coaches try to teach, and Williams has done superbly. And it’s mighty sweet to watch.

UCSB’s seven-game winning streak is the program’s longest since the 1988-89 team opened the year with 11-straight victories

The Gauchos have a break for finals and then hit the road for three games in late December. They play Ball State, top-ranked North Carolina and Eastern Washington before returning home against Big West Conference foe Long Beach State on Jan. 3.

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