UCSB midfielder Finn Ballard McBride had something to prove.
The Australian striker heard some criticism from his teammates at halftime of Wednesday night’s home game against UC Riverside.
“The first half, me personally, I thought I was really poor, and the players let me know in no uncertain terms what they thought,” he said.
So Ballard McBride did something about it.
He scored UCSB’s only two goals over the final 45 minutes for a 2-0 win at Harder Stadium.
“That motivated me a little bit,” Ballard McBride said with a smile.
The victory improved the Gauchos’ (10-2-2, 3-0-0 Big West) unbeaten streak to 11 games and catapulted them into sole possession of first place in the Big West conference with nine points. UC Irvine — which UCSB hosts on Saturday night — beat UC Davis, 1-0, to move into second place with seven points.
One of those giving McBride a stiff pep talk at the break was New Zealand center back Noah Billingsley. It was something Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg made light of during the postgame press conference.
“I think he was more upset about the fact that it was a New Zealander yelling at him,” Vom Steeg said with a chuckle. “I think that’s what bothered him the most, to be honest with you. It if was somebody else, he wouldn’t care,” Vom Steeg concluded with a smile.
After both teams defended well in the first half, the Gauchos came out very aggressively in the second half.
It paid off in the 52nd minute when junior forward Rodney Michael served a ball from the right side that bounced around and ended up on the turf in the 6-yard box. Ballard McBride was there to drive it past Highlanders goalkeeper Edwyn Gutierrez for a 1-0 lead.
UCR’s best chance at a goal came six minutes later, in the 58th, when midfielder Daniel Aguirre ripped a 20-yard free kick that Gaucho keeper Ben Roach dove and deflected away with his right fist. The Highlanders’ quality chance to equalize the match was turned away by another outstanding save by Roach, and the Gauchos took over from there.
In the 67th, New Zealand right back Noah Billingsley broke in along the right side of Riverside’s 18-yard box and delivered a high cross off his right foot that was bending away from the 6-yard box. Somehow, Ballard McBride, drifting away from goal, flicked a header with enough on it from eight yards to get it past Gutierrez and inside the upper-right corner of the goal for a 2-0 lead.
It was Ballard McBride’s team-leading eighth score of the season.
“I was coming in from the back post and I saw the ball the whole way coming through,” Ballard McBride said. “I just got a clean connection with it. I squared up the shoulders and just put my head through it, and it flew in.”
UCSB continued to attack after Ballard McBride’s second of the match, but a third goal was not there, despite some strong scoring chances.
Pressed for time and down by two, UCR increased its offensive pressure, particularly over the final 10 minutes of the game. But the Gauchos kept their clean sheet, even though Highlanders sophomore defender Kameron Bolden hit the far post with a shot from the right side with 19 seconds remaining.
“I thought it was a really tough game tonight,” Vom Steeg said. “I knew it would be a tough game. They are competitive, they play hard, they have two or three of the more skilled midfielders in our conference.
“All around, I thought that if we could get an early goal, or something in the first half, then maybe that would open things up a little bit. We weren’t really sharp enough, I thought, in the first 30 minutes, and consequently we didn’t do enough to get the goal.”
That all changed in the second half.
“I thought we came out with good energy at the start of the second half … and we got the cross and Finn was in the right spot at the right time,” Vom Steeg added. “And then of course he comes up with the second goal, which finished the game, by enlarge.
“It was a good result for us. Every conference game is a tough game. Every conference game possess its own challenges. I’m certainly happy this game was at Harder Stadium and not at Riverside.”
Saturday’s Senior Night game against UC Irvine begins at 7 p.m. After that, the Gauchos close out the regular season with matches at UC Davis, at Cal State Northridge and at Cal Poly.