Gauchos hang with No. 1 Tar Heels, fall 84-67

UCSB vs. North Carolina men's basketball

UCSB’s Will Brew dribbles against North Carolina’s Ty Lawson. (Presidio Sports Photos)

North Carolina got some comforting news 15 minutes before facing UCSB at the Thunderdome on Friday night, as Hall-of-Fame coach Roy Williams cleared injured returning National College Basketball Player-of-the-Year Tyler Hansbrough to play for the first time this season.

But it was the Gauchos who ended up making the country’s No. 1-ranked team feel mighty uncomfortable, challenging the Tar Heels for much of the game before finally falling 84-67.

“Even though it looks like a 20-point blowout on paper, if you were here, you know that’s not the case,” said Gaucho forward Jesse Byrd, who was the Gauchos’ second-leading scorer with 12 and helped hold Hansbrough to 13 points.

UCSB (1-2) fed off the energy of a near sell-out at the Thunderdome, helping the Gauchos take a brief five-point lead midway through the first half.

“The enthusiasm of the crowd was sensational here,” noted Williams, a six-time coach of the year, who has seen his fair share of frenzied crowds during his 21 years as a head coach.

The student section was packed to the rafters, all wearing yellow shirts that were distributed before the game. UCSB’s unofficial men’s basketball mascot, “the fantom of the dome,” even showed up to keep the crowd riled up during timeouts.

But the Tar Heels (3-0) were just too talented and too deep for the Gauchos to fully overcome.

“You look down, you got six guys in double-figures,” said Williams of his arsenal of future NBA players. “That’s important to us, it’s the way we like to play.”

Hansbrough, a rare unanimous pre-season All-American who had missed the Tar Heels’ first two games because of a stress reaction in his right shin, managed to score 13 points but missed six-of-eight field goals, getting most of his point total from the free-throw line in his season debut.

“He’s nowhere near where we want him to be,” Williams said of his star player. “It’s going to take awhile, he’s human.”

Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington picked up the scoring slack, totaling 19 and 17 points respectively. Lawson’s points seemed to come when the Tar Heels needed them most, as his seven straight in the first half erased UCSB’s five-point lead and put the Tar Heels in the lead for good. When the Gauchos crept to within six points early in the second half, it was a Lawson jumper and two free throws that kept UCSB at bay.

The story for the Gauchos was the stellar play from their bench. With leading-scorers Chris Devine and James Powell both struggling, freshman James Nunnally stepped into the void and scored a career high 22 points.

“That’s our goal for the bench. That’s what we’re supposed to do, come off the bench with a lot of energy to help our starters out,” explained Nunnally, who is part of head coach Bob Williams’ most highly rated recruiting class ever along with classmates Will Brew Jr., Jamie Serna and 7-foot-2 center Greg Somogyi.

“Once again, our freshmen aren’t intimidated by a crowd or an opponent. And those freshmen are going to get better and better as this year goes on,” UCSB’s Williams said of the group.

The Tar Heels were in a hurry to leave Santa Barbara after the game, having to leave for Hawaii for this week’s Maui Invitational which includes top-programs such as Oregon, Indiana, Texas and Notre Dame.

The Gauchos, meanwhile, hit the road after a three-game homestand and travel to San Francisco for a Monday matchup with USF. Then they travel east to Illinois to play three games in three days at the World Vision Invitational before a trip to Utah Valley on Dec. 4. UCSB’s next game at the Thunderdome is on Dec. 13 against Loyola Marymount. Big West Conference play begins Jan. 2 at Long Beach State.

“Going into conference, going into the next few games, I can’t even explain how much confidence we get from this type of game,” said Byrd.

If the Gauchos can play with the Tar Heels, they can play with anybody.

“When they come to North Carolina, we talk about winning championships, we talk about getting rings, hanging banners – those types of things,” said Williams of his players, underscoring the caliber of team UCSB just put a scare into.

(Photos taken by John Dvorak/PresidioPics)