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UCSB Runs Record to 11-2

Gauchos sluggish but good enough to beat Eastern Washington, 58-51. Big West play starts Thursday.

The UCSB men’s basketball team got off to a slow start on the road against Eastern Washington on Saturday, but the Gauchos still posted a 58-51 win to run their record to 11-2 — their best start in 19 years. Ranked eighth nationally in the collegeinsider.com Mid-Major Top 25, UCSB begins Big West Conference play Thursday at home.

“It was a sluggish effort,” head coach Bob Williams said of Saturday’s performance. “I’m tickled to be 11-2 but we didn’t play with the energy and mental toughness we need. We just weren‘t very sharp today.”

Luckily, neither was Eastern Washington, which fell to 6-9 on the season despite a 23-point effort from Kellen Williams.

Trailing by five at halftime, 33-28, the Eagles came out and missed their first seven shots of the second half to drop 12 points back. But the Gauchos, who had made an uncharacteristic 11 turnovers in the first period, added to that telling total and missed their chance to put the game away. Trey Gross scored twice and Williams returned an offensive rebound to cut it to five. The game stayed close the rest of the way.

Precision from both the free-throw line and beyond the arc have been Gaucho strengths lately, but they couldn’t thaw out from either Saturday in snowy Cheney, Wash. They hit just three of 15 from deep and were 11 of 19 from the charity stripe.

Alex Harris did hit five straight from the line to stabilize things, but he also missed his first three free throws.

“I knew something was off when Alex missed his first two,” Williams lamented. “That just never happens.”

UCSB stabilized its ball control midway through the half as Harris returned to form to lead the team with 18 on the night. Ivan Elliott (11), Chris Devine (nine), Nedim Pajevic (six) and Paul Roemer (five) made the rebounds, steals and shots to maintain a lead that hovered between four and seven points. And not until Williams missed a couple of key free throws, and Devine made one, could the Gauchos finally sigh in relief.

Eastern Washington had beaten the Gauchos in the Thunderdome last year, 71-70, and was riding a three-game win streak, so the victory is gratifying in many ways. But the real tests of Big West play now loom before the Gauchos, who were preseason favorites to win the conference.

On Thursday, defending Big West champion Long Beach State visits UCSB, with a tough Cal State Northridge squad arriving Jan. 5.

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