Dec. 5, 2007
This story ran in the Santa Barbara News Press on Dec. 5, 2007
James Powell learned to count at a young age, although he always did it backwards.
He'd tick down the seconds to the cadence of a bouncing basketball -- 3, 2, 1 -- and then heave it toward the basket.
"If I missed, I'd make believe that I was fouled or something and shoot free throws," Powell said. "I always made sure it turned out my way."
It's still going that way for UCSB's sophomore guard. He hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Tuesday of last week to break Nevada-Las Vegas' heart, and four days later made two foul shots with 24 seconds left to break Loyola Marymount's back.
Powell's 10.9-point average has helped the Gauchos win five straight games entering tonight's 7 o'clock home game against Pepperdine. At 7-1, UCSB is off to its best start in 15 years.
"After the UNLV game, J.J. (Justin Joyner) came up and told me, 'That's the shot you dream about in the front yard,' " Powell said. "Well, that's exactly what it was for me."
The Big West Conference rewarded him for the heroics by having him share its Player of the Week Award with Cal State Northridge's Tremaine Townsend.
Powell's game-winning plays are nothing new to Gaucho coach Bob Williams.
"James has a great deal of confidence in himself, and he's relaxed enough to just play in those situations," he said.
Pepperdine's Waves (4-5) are no strangers to UCSB's Mr. Clutch, either -- he depressed them with four late free throws and 18 points in the Gauchos' double-overtime win in Malibu last season.
He came through with similar heroics in other road wins at UNLV and Portland.
Powell, the son of Charmaine and James Powell, was born to play basketball. His father had played at Azusa Pacific "and was the one who put the ball in my hands."
"He'd challenge me in horse and one-on-one when I was a kid," Powell said. "He used to beat me all the time, but the last time we played -- either during my senior year or my freshman year at UCSB -- I definitely won that one.
"He's the one who signed me up for the leagues, but the love for the game has to come from within you. The love for it comes from myself."
He was starring at Glendora High by his sophomore year, averaging 15 points and 4 assists that season, and 16 points and 6 assists as a junior. But he still flew under the recruiting radar of the major-college powers.
"He was our No. 1 choice (at guard), but he played for an AAU team that summer that was very individualistic," Williams recalled. "It had a bunch of star players that never passed the ball -- and in the end, that really helped us get him.
"We knew how good he could be and were really, really excited to get him."
Powell showcased that ability after signing with UCSB in the fall of 2004, scoring 53 points for Glendora High in a game against Ayala. And yes, they were a clutch 53.
"It was on the road, in Chino Hills, and it was a pretty big game," he recalled. "They were undefeated in league at the time.
"But I did have to take a lot of 3-pointers to get that many."
He shot 18 of them -- and made 12.
Powell redshirted his first year at UCSB, agonizing over the Gauchos' 6-8 record in the Big West.
"We had a couple of tough losses that year, and it definitely made me wish I were playing," he said. "I love basketball and I love playing with my teammates, and it was pretty hard when I had to redshirt. I had to take a few steps back.
"But at the end of the day, it was definitely beneficial for me."
Powell used the time, Williams said, to hone his ball-handling skills. By the time the next season arrived, he was picked to start in place of injured senior Cecil Brown, averaging 14.7 points through the first seven games.
But Powell's numbers plummeted when Brown returned. He reached double-figure scoring just once during a midseason stretch of 13 games.
"I'm not sure he felt he knew where his role was after that," Williams said. "But then he kind of rallied the last part of the year."
Powell never cited Brown's return for hindering his game.
"I heard people say that -- that that's why I went through a little slide -- but that wasn't it at all," he said. "Cecil was one of the most unselfish guys I've ever played with. He could score whenever he wanted to, but he wasn't all about that.
"He didn't even mind coming off the bench. It was just me not playing as well as I could, and not making shots."
Powell did finish strong, scoring 14 points in a late-season win over Pacific to finish with an average of 8.8 per game. He joined Joyner, UCSB's starting point guard, on the Big West All-Freshman team.
"You've got to love the fact that we'll have that backcourt together for four years," Williams said. "If you look at the type of wins and minutes and play that those kids have logged in just over a year, it's a pretty positive thing."
Powell considers team chemistry to be one of the biggest reasons for the Gauchos' strong start. UCSB is ranked 10th in ESPN's mid-major poll and No. 14 in a similar survey conducted by CollegeInsider.com.
"We all hang out at each other's apartments, we go out and eat together, and we're honestly one big family," he said. "I know it sounds like a clichè, but we do have each other's backs and play hard for each other."
And it's helped Gaucho star Alex Harris to have Powell on the backside. Harris has made 15-of-37 shots from the 3-point arc to average 23.6 points, while Powell is 16-for-40 in 3-balls.
"You have to have some other shooters around Al, or else other teams would never have to help off of him," Williams said. "It's great having James as a bookend shooter."
But Powell wants to be known as more than just a shooter. He had five assists and six rebounds to go with his 11 points at Loyola on Saturday.
"He's a real team guy -- and as great as he is as a player, he's an even greater kid to be around," Williams said. "He's as good as they come in handling coaching and not taking any of that personally.
"The best thing about James is how he keeps things in perspective. He laughs so easily."
Just like a kid, still counting down a clock.