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UCSB Back on Track with 87-72 Win in Fullerton

Behind Powell, Devine, Gauchos snap two-game losing streak, hand Titans first Big West loss.

Things were dark for UCSB fans, after a blazing preseason had fizzled twice against Big West Conference opponents Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine.

But the lights are back on after the Gauchos’ dominating 87-72 win over Cal State Fullerton on Saturday.

On the road, in a foreign gym, with momentum fading, the Gauchos found the formula that had propelled them to the best preseason in 19 years.

“Defense! It’s defense baby! … It’s all defense!” Ivan Elliott gushed to his teammates during a timeout after two Gaucho steals and scores had extended the first-half lead to 12 with four minutes left in the half.

He had it right. The oppressive, in your face defense that had characterized the Gauchos during their 12-2 season start was back on full display in Fullerton, which was 3-0 in conference at the start of the game.

UCSB outshot the Titans 65 percent to 34 percent, largely because of the pressure on Fullerton’s devastating outside threats who had led the league in three-point shooting. Josh Akognon, the Big West’s leading scorer, ended the night one for 11 from behind the arc. Ten of his team-high 17 points came from the line, as the Gauchos shut him down from everywhere else.

Meanwhile, the UCSB offense was clicking just fine, without any free throws at all for much of the game. Despite never stepping to the line in the first half, James Powell was five for six from the floor, enjoying a rare size advantage over Junior Russell, his 5-foot-6 defender. Powell ended with a team-high 20, off eight of 11 shooting.

UCSB coach Bob Williams knows his sophomore scorer well.

“When James hits his first shot, it usually means he’s going to be on," he said. "He had a great match-up and took advantage of it all night.”

Justin Joyner, not usually the big point producer, was five of six from the floor including three of three from three-point distance, for 13 points. And his nonstop pressure on defense and high-rise rebounds set the tone for the night.

Chris Devine was at his battling best against Fullerton’s sole inside presence, Scott Cutley, who scored 15, but had to earn every breath against Devine. Before fouling out, Devine ended up with 18 points of his own.

Relatively quiet was Alex Harris (13 points), the Gauchos’ leading scorer, who took only 10 shots, making five, and going one for four from behind the arc.

“This game was huge for us,” Williams noted afterward. “To stem the tide and get the momentum back … it was as good a team effort as we’ve played lately, and it was very good to see.”

That team effort requires constant aggression, and it’s not easy to manufacture night after night.

“Our team buy-in, minute to minute, was better than it has been during these last two losses,” Williams added. “And this is what it takes for us to win.”

The victory evens UCSB’s league record at 2-2, 13-4 overall, with plenty more big challenges ahead. The Gauchos travel to San Luis Obispo on Jan. 19 for a 7 p.m. tip-off at Cal Poly before returning home for a pair of games against Pacific and UC Davis.

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