December 16, 2008

Powell Feeling Like a Big Shot

Nov. 21, 2008

By Doug Padilla
San Gabriel Valley Tribune Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA - It's the digital age, so to draw attention to yourself, mastering the art of the 30-second Internet video is a must.

If last November was any indication, UC Santa Barbara junior James Powell - a sharp-shooting guard out of Glendora High School - just might have what it takes to get noticed.

The cell phone video shots of Powell's game-winning buzzer beater against UNLV last season still exist on YouTube, with multiple angles for greater viewing pleasure.

But it wasn't just the forward-thinking cell phone videographers that found Powell's shot worthy of sharing. Even ESPN took notice of the moment from the Big West Conference, a gaggle of schools often ignored by the self-proclaimed sports leader.

On Nov. 27 of last year, Powell took a pass from the wing, made one dribble to his left and buried a 3-pointer from above the top of the key mere moments before the buzzer to give UC Santa Barbara the 63-60 victory. ESPN made the shot its No. 2 play of the day.

Powell can still recall the video clip ESPN deemed better than the best shot in his life.

"It was a high-school football play," Powell said, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. "They threw a 'Hail Mary' and it tipped off a guy and tipped off a guy and one guy ran back and caught it and ran for a touchdown.

"I thought I should have gotten No. 1."

Powell is kidding, but in a way he isn't.

The video clip rated better than his was a sheer act of desperation, with a couple of doses of luck thrown in. While frantic, Powell's shot was the culmination of hours of long-range jumpshots inside of a gym.

It might not even be a stretch to say that Powell's game-winner came from a dedication that is unmatched in college basketball.

Look, Powell now lives in a beach city that has an intimate relationship with the camera lens. He doesn't have to pedal his bicycle more than an mile from his front door in Santa Barbara before passing dozens of postcard scenes.

While his fellow students can use their spare time to revel in the beauty, Powell spends his time in the classroom and then the gym for practice. What time is left, he usually uses it to shoot more baskets. The sunset? To Powell, that's the ball passing through the rim.

"It's about repetition because the more reps you take, the more comfortable you feel," he said. "Once you have the comfort level, you're not really thinking about it, you're just shooting. You spend hours in the gym, days in the gym. Once you try so many shots, you don't have to think about it anymore."

His dedication has paid off more that just his UNLV heroics would indicate. Last season, Powell made a school-record 46.7 percent of his shots from 3-point range. He averaged 12.3 points per game, tied for second best on the 2007-08 squad as a sophomore.

More is expected as he returns to his role as starting off guard. With the departure of Alex Harris and his 20.2 points per game, everybody on the Gauchos will have to step up their game. For Powell, it will mean more than just taking additional shots.

"It's hard to find that type of shooter that is athletic enough to defend the way we want to try and defend and do the things we want to do on the defensive end - and then shoot the ball that well," Gauchos coach Bob Williams said. "James has got that. He's athletic enough. It's just his attention to detail that we have been raising the bar on him."

Ultimately, though, shooting the ball well will be paramount for a UCSB team that won 23 games last season, but saw its season unravel in the Big West Tournament. The Gauchos entered as the No. 1 seed and were ousted by UC Irvine. It was the third time the Anteaters defeated UCSB last season.

The Gauchos still earned an invitation to the NIT, but were eliminated in the first round at Mississippi. The NIT defeat might have ended the season, but the UC Irvine loss felt worse.

"We didn't lose to a team that was better than us, which was the worst part of it," Powell said of Irvine. "We lost to a team that we should have beat. It would have ultimately put us in the championship game and given us a chance to win it. It was disappointing."

If Powell can start this season like he finished last year, he should be able to give the Gauchos what they are looking for. In the regular-season home finale against UC Riverside, he made seven 3-pointers, the most by a UCSB player since 2005. In the NIT game he made six of his 10 attempts.

He is no stranger to scoring. Once in a game at Glendora he hit 12 3-pointers against Ayala and had a career-high 53 points.

Twice at Glendora Powell was named first-team all-CIF under coach Mike LeDuc.

"If you're talking about my success I think a lot of it has to do with coach LeDuc just because he taught me basic values such as fundamentals, how to run plays, defensive schemes, a lot of things of that nature," Powell said. "Coach LeDuc, he knows what he's talking about. He prepared me for this level, no question."

Despite his prep success, though, Powell's college options were limited to San Diego or Pacific, in addition to UCSB.

Some nights when his shooting touch is particularly accurate, he wonders if coaches from maybe Oregon or UCLA were watching and thinking about what they could have had.

"Just being a competitor you do have a little bit of thoughts like that," Powell said. "Unfortunately the Big West isn't as highly prestigious as the Pac-10 and schools like that. To play well against bigger schools feels good. You always have to have a chip on your shoulder."

It might not get any bigger than Nov. 21 then. That's day North Carolina comes to campus and for one evening anyway, everybody in Santa Barbara will rather be indoors.

doug.padilla@sgvn.com

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2731