The way UCI (13-9, 4-2 in conference) played against the Gauchos (13-6, 4-2), and with four road games in their next six, the Anteaters may not have to worry about first place for long.
"I believe in the game of basketball, you get what you deserve and I'm not very happy with our team tonight," UCI Coach Russell Turner said after his team fell behind, 17-2, en route to its second straight loss. "We never looked very into this game. Luke Nelson [who had a career-high 26 points] fought a little bit offensively, but I thought the rest of us were defeated tonight. I give Santa Barbara credit for really sticking it to us."
UCI was without 6-foot-8 junior Will Davis, who remained in Irvine to receive treatment for a back problem that has been plaguing him for weeks. Turner said Davis, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year last season who leads the 'Eaters in rebounding (6.9 per game) and entered the week as the second-leading scorer (11.4 per contest), is questionable for Saturday.
"When we were without Will and Mamadou [Ndiaye] at UC Riverside, we had everybody ready [in a 72-52 conference road win on Jan. 11]," Turner said. "I don't think we had everybody fully ready and engaged tonight and I'm not sure how that happens."
Nelson, a freshman guard, netted 18 second-half points and hit four of his six three-pointers after intermission. He finished nine for 21 from the field and six of 15 from beyond the arc. The six threes are a career high.
But the remaining four starters were just five for 19 from the field (26.3%) as UCI shot 35.7% for the game (20 for 56), third worst this season, including nine for 29 from threedom (31%).
Senior Chris McNealy had 10 points and his five rebounds matched John Ryan, who started in place of Davis, and Ndiaye for team-high honors.
Ndiaye, who came into the game having made his last 25 field-goal tries, missed a chance to tie the NCAA Division I record when he missed his first shot, a 10-footer, early in the contest. Ndiaye, largely negated by the Gauchos' physical front-court players and swarming double-teams by the guards, had four points, five rebounds and four turnovers in 16 minutes.
Meanwhile, UCSB junior big man Alan Williams, arguably the best player in the conference, had 20 of his 26 points after halftime, when he connected on seven of nine field-goal tries to wind up 10 for 17. Williams also had 10 rebounds and three steals, both of which led the winners.
Taran Brown, a 6-8 sophomore guard, was five for five from three-point range on his way to 16 points and he had three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes to help get UCSB off to a hot start.
"We're pretty tough to beat at home when we play as physically as we did tonight," said Williams, who also blocked one shot, one more than the total posted by UCI, which entered the week ranked No. 7 in the nation in blocks per game (6.7).
UCSB Coach Bob Williams had praise for Nelson and Ndiaye.
"[Nelson] was exceptional tonight, the best I've seen him play," said Williams, who called Ndiaye "a force and a monster who is still learning. He's just a baby and I think in the end, he's going to be a great player. I believe we'll be watching him play on TV [in the NBA] for years to come."
Big West Conference
UC Santa Barbara 80, UC Irvine 60
UCI – Ryan 2, Ndiaye 4, Nelson 26, McNealy 10, Young 2, Souza 5, Wright 4, Dimakopoulos 4, Dunning 2, Best 1.
3-pt. goals – Nelson 6.
Fouled out – Wright.
Technicals – None.
UCSB – Williams 26, Brewe 8, Brown 16, Harmon 7, Bryson 6, Boswell 10, Childress 4, Louks 2, Beeler 1.
3-pt. goals – Brown 5, Boswell 2, Harmon 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCSB, 34-24.