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UCSB Cruises to Victory in Big West Opener

Devine scores 17 in 79-64 win over Long Beach State as Gauchos earn 10th victory in 11 games.

UCSB‘s Big West Conference opener at the Thunderdome on Thursday was simply Devine — as in Chris Devine. The Gauchos’ 6-foot-8 inner strength established dominance on the first bucket of the night, and backed it up repeatedly on his way to 17 points, eight rebounds and a number of scenic swats in the 79-64 win over defending conference champion Long Beach State.

With the game nearly even in the first half, Long Beach guard Greg Plater took it inside on Devine. Foolish mortal. Devine ignited the crowd with a full swing block, a la Evan Patak, UCSB’s former volleyball goliath, that erased the shot entirely and kicked the Gauchos into gear.

The Gauchos opened up a 15-point lead with their patented pressurized defense that forced 15 first-half Long Beach turnovers, some great outside shooting, a towering sky hook from Ivan Elliott, and some Bosnian artistry.

The flurry included three sweet assists from 6-foot-9 Nedim Pajevic, the Sarajevo native who took one turnover up court, leading the fast break like a guard, and fed the streaking James Powell for a bucket. He followed that with a perfect quick touch pass to Justin Joyner cutting to the hole for another.

But it didn’t last.

“We started trying to play offense at the speed we play defense,” explained Gauchos head coach Bob Williams, “and we just can’t play like that. At one point, in 15 possessions we only passed the ball 10 times.”

Long Beach closed the gap with some brilliant shooting of its own, as Donovan Morris and Cornel Williams scored repeatedly after hasty shots by UCSB. The Forty-Niners whittled down the lead to 36-35 before Devine drilled a pair of free-throws to stop the bleeding, and a few moments later two more to push the half-time score to 42-35.

“At the break I just told them to love each other, and spread the love around,” Williams smiled. “And in the second half we had some A-caliber possessions where we’d pass five, six and seven times and then find the open shooter.”

The improved ball movement gave the bevy of Gaucho marksmen that extra moment to gather, and the effect was devastating on Long Beach. Powell drilled a pair of threes and Alex Harris was finally able to shake off Morris’ tough defense that had hounded him all night, and heat up on offense.

Long Beach coach Dan Monson identified Harris as “the elite player in the league,” but added that UCSB presented many problems.

“The key was Devine and Elliott inside, that gave them a great inside presence," he said. "And their shooters give them an outside presence. They’re just so experienced, so balanced and tough to defend.”

UCSB’s scoring displayed that balance as Devine ended with 17, Harris 16, Powell 16 and Elliott 13.

The Gauchos can hurt you from many quarters, play in-your-face defense all game and hit their free throws (10 of 11 for the night). It’s quite a potent formula.

Hence, UCSB’s No. 1 pre-season pick in league, a No. 6 national rating in the midmajor poll, and an 11-2 record.

It’s already been a season of great accomplishment for the Gauchos, and if they want to make that far-away league title a reality, the first big test comes to town Saturday.

Cal State Northridge looks to contend with UCSB in 2008, and the winner Saturday will establish early Big West superiority. The game is at 7 p.m. in the Thunderdome — rain or shine.

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