The Gauchos (18-6 overall, 7-4 Big West Conference) mixed a full-court press with an aggressive, half-court man-to-man defense and created 24 turnovers on 16 steals, tying a season high. Ivan Elliott was the leading thief with four, while Justin Joyner, James Powell and seldom-used reserve three-point specialist Jordan Weiner each had three picks of their own.
UCSB scored 17 points on nine first-half steals to build a 31-25 halftime lead. Alex Harris was the main beneficiary, scoring eight of his 11 points in transition and adding a three-point basket off a crisp pass from Joyner. The lead was just four with Cal Poly working to take the last shot when Weiner stole the ball with three seconds left and fed a breaking Harris for the layup as the buzzer sounded.
Cal Poly (9-14, 4-7) bucked up in the lane, however, tallying 21 rebounds in the first half to the Gauchos’ 10, including seven on the offensive end. The Mustangs’ Titus Shelton led all rebounders with nine, including six on the offensive end.
“Shelton does a great job of taking up space and pushing our guys under the basket. He’s not so tall as he is wide and hard to move,” UCSB head coach Bob Williams said.
Lorenzo Keeler connected on two three-pointers and Cal Poly shot 39 percent from behind the arc in the first half to stay close. Cal Poly’s starting guard, Chaz Thomas, suffered an ankle injury in practice Tuesday and the primary ball-handling responsibilities fell upon Trae Clark, who logged 35 minutes. The increased time showed as Clark committed six turnovers, five in the first half.
“We tried to take advantage of Chaz being out and get it out of Trae’s hands,” Harris said. “Coach wanted us to get out and run.”
When UCSB wasn’t scoring in transition, it made a conscious effort to work the ball inside and draw fouls. Chris Devine began the game with a 4-0 run, all from the free-throw line as his teammates repeatedly found him open in the lane.
“We think if we can get to the line 20 times we’re a difficult team to beat,” said Williams.
While the Gauchos were only able to get to the line 15 times they were very efficient, hitting 13 from the charity stripe. Harris went seven for seven from the line while Devine hit six of seven.
The Mustangs were more anemic, hitting on just 10 of their 17 freebies.
“We’re all over the board on free throws. We hit 26 of 28 on ESPN in beating Pacific at their place and we go 10-17 tonight,” a frustrated Mustangs head coach Kevin Bromley lamented.
After the intermission, UCSB went on a 6-0 run to push its lead to 37-25 with 17:30 left in the game. The Gauchos again came out and asserted dominance in the post, with Devine scoring on a nifty up and under move and a baseline drive off a dish from Harris while Joyner complimented the interior play with an 18 foot jumper in transition. Devine finished with 16 points on the evening while Joyner added eight.
The Gauchos return to action Saturday when they travel to UC Davis for a 7 p.m. game.
Jarrod Bradley coaches San Marcos High’s boys’ basketball team.