After his top-ranked basketball team survived its first game in a hostile environment, North Carolina coach Roy Williams gave Santa Barbara a pep talk.
“The enthusiasm of the crowd was sensational,” Williams said. “If they keep that up, I know it will help them in their conference.”
Williams was talking about the 6,000 spectators who packed the Thunderdome and the UCSB Gauchos, who put up a spirited fight Friday night in an 84-67 defeat to the Tar Heels.
“We tried to give them something to be proud of,” UCSB junior Jesse Byrd said of the Gaucho fans. “It was mutual appreciation for both of us – them as a crowd and us as a team.”
It was more like delirium in the first half, when the Gauchos went on a 9-0 run and took a 27-22 lead over the visitors. Junior guard Paul Roemer hit a pair of 3-pointers, and freshman forward Jaime Serna scored in deep off an assist from Chris Devine.
“Yes, we can!” chanted UCSB’s students. But then Ty Lawson retorted, “No, you can’t!” The junior guard drilled back-to-back 3-pointers, putting the Tar Heels ahead for good. Lawson (19 points and three assists) led five Carolina players scoring in double figures.
UCSB freshman James Nunnally came off the bench and scored a game-high 22 points. His spinning fast-break layup and free throw in the final minute of the half pulled the Gauchos within six points (43-37). A pair of free throws by Tyler Hansbrough gave the Tar Heels a 45-37 lead at halftime.
Hansbrough, the national player of the year in 2007-08, made his season debut after sitting out Carolina’s first two games with a stress reaction in his right shin. The 6’9″ senior scored nine of his 13 points at the free-throw line and snagged seven rebounds, five at the offensive end. He was relentless – “Psycho T” is his nickname – but a bit rusty. He stuffed a layup attempt by Will Brew midway through the second half when the Gauchos made their last run, pulling within seven points (60-53).
Byrd, who scored 12 points for the Gauchos, jousted with Hansbrough at both ends of the floor. “He’s definitely strong,” said Byrd, a sturdy 6’8″ transfer from San Francisco. “Everybody knows he’s going to be an NBA player. I tried to see him as not something greater than a human being.”
Deon Thompson, a 6’8″ junior from Torrance, had a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in his California homecoming with the Tar Heels.
UCSB’s senior leaders, Devine (four points, four assists) and James Powell (nine points on 4-16 shooting) seemed to be pressing against a Carolina defense that obviously had them scouted.
“I guarantee Chris Devine and James Powell are going to have a great year,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said.
Williams was thrilled with the performance of Nunnally, a 6’5″ swing player from San Jose. He had a team-high seven rebounds in addition to his 22 points.
“He wasn’t intimidated, he wasn’t nervous, he wasn’t afraid to shoot,” Williams said of the freshman, who made three 3-pointers in four attempts.
“We had good moments,” the Gaucho coach said. “We’ve got to put in more of those moments to be the team we want to be.”
UCSB (1-2) begins a five-game road trip Monday at USF. The Gauchos’ next home game will be December 13 against Loyola Marymount. North Carolina (3-0) is heading off to Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational.