Gaucho loss lined with promise

It stings to lose a close game, but UCSB men’s basketball coach Bob Williams got some novocaine from his younger players in the Gauchos’ 61-59 loss to former Big-West foe Utah State at the Thunderdome on Monday night.

“I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been after a loss,” said Williams.

The Gauchos rallied from a 12-point deficit in the final eight minutes, and go-to junior James Powell buried a trey to knot things up at 59 apiece with a half-minute remaining. But Aggie forward Matt Formisano grabbed an offensive board and put in a layup with three seconds left as the visitors held on for the victory.

UCSB’s statistical performance as a team is not the reason for Williams’ optimism. The Gauchos (1-1) shot a mediocre 45-percent from the floor, managed only seven free-throw attempts and were out-rebounded 36-25. Instead, it was the team’s youth movement that had Williams’ spirits up after the loss.

Freshman Will Brew Jr. got 19 solid minutes at point guard, playing with a nice swagger and tallying five assists to go along with three steals in his second collegiate game.

“I was a big fan of Will tonight. He comes in and plays with a lot of confidence,” said Powell, who finished with 14 points despite an off-night shooting.

Then there was 7-foot-3 freshman Greg Somogyi, who came in for 11 minutes and made his presence felt down low. He finished with four boards and a swat to go along with two emphatic dunks (not hard when you can touch the rim standing on your tippy-toes).

“He did a great job of mopping up the glass for us, and our guys are just learning how to use him,” said Williams.

Junior transfer Jesse Byrd had a nice game, going 4-for-5 from the field, , and sophomore Sam Phippen had two boards, six points and a block in 10 minutes of play.

The Aggies (2-0), however, had a much bigger physical presence, especially with first-team all-WAC favorites Tai Wesley and Gary Wilkinson patrolling the paint. the bruising 240-pounders combined for 16 rebounds and 23 points, with Wesley going 6-for-6 from the floor.

“We get to the line seven times in a game and it says a lot about us not playing physical enough,” said Williams.

A Wesley layup with 12:09 left put the Aggies up 41-44. Wilkinson got to the line and made a pair of free throws, and Wesley grabbed a steal that led to a Stavon Williams to put Utah State up 49-41. Another Wesley layup made the lead 10 at 51-41 with 9:33 left, and Jared Quayle buried one from long range with 7:52 left that gave the visitors their biggest lead of the night, 56-44.

The Gauchos chipped away and the crowd of 4,000 picked it up as well. Powell made his way around the Aggie defense on a nice drive, finishing by kissing it off the glass to pull the Gauchos within three. He got an open look at the tying-shot at the 1:20 mark but missed, only to get another look from the same spot after a D.J. Posley steal with 30 seconds left. He nailed it.

Powell, who buried a memorable game-winner against UNLV at the Thunderdome last season, is expected to be the team’s sharp-shooter in the clutch. But when his shot is off as it was for much of the night Monday (he was 2-for-8 from beyond the arc), he will need to find other ways to make an impact.

“The coaching staff has been talking to me about finding other ways to be effective other than scoring, so even though my shot wasn’t falling, I felt like I did a pretty good job of not getting down on myself,” he said. “When the shot came, I was just thinking about the next shot and not the last one.”

The Gauchos are going through necessary growing pains, according to Williams. The young squad will have to do a lot of sprouting up before Friday if it hopes to hang with the nation’s top team, North Carolina, as the Tar Heels invade the Thunderdome for a much-anticipated sellout.