On Thursday night, the UCSB men’s basketball team blew a 20-point-plus lead to Cal Poly. On Saturday night against UC Riverside, the Gauchos almost did it again.
Just two nights removed from a heartbreaking 80-79 loss to the Mustangs, the Gauchos picked up their first Big West win of the season against the Highlanders by a score of 65-57, pushing UCSB to 12-4 overall and 1-1 in league play.
Eight minutes into their game against Cal Poly on Thursday, it seemed as though the Gauchos were destined to pick up their first league win in their first try. The Mustangs had no answer for UCSB, which jumped out to a 23-2 lead with 12:54 remaining in the first half.
The early Gaucho offensive explosion was driven by a balanced offensive attack. Six different players scored in that 23-2 run, and four players ended the first half with at least five points.
The last ten minutes of the first half were markedly different from the first. Cal Poly ran off a 20-5 run at the end of the half to cut the Gaucho lead to 40-36 at halftime, as the hosts scored only eight points in the last eight minutes.
While the first half was defined by two opposing runs, the second half was back-and-forth on a more microscopic level. With 13 lead changes in the second half alone, neither team was willing to let the other rest.
Senior forward Jalen Canty had the hot hand in the second half, shooting 8-10 from the field for 17 points, one for each minute he played in the period. Sophomore guard Max Heidegger, normally the Gauchos’ most dependable and prolific scorer, was comparatively cold in going 2-10 for nine points in the last 20 minutes.
For all his second half struggles, however, Heidegger made the shot his team needed him to. After Donovan Fields layup brought the Mustangs into a 77-77 tie, Heidegger buried a tough midrange jumper to give UCSB a 79-77 lead with exactly one second remaining in regulation.
Up two with just one clock tick to go, all the Gauchos had to do in order to secure their fourth win in a row and first in Big West play was to contest any last-second shot without fouling. They were unsuccessful in doing so.
Fields, inbounding the ball, ran the baseline and hit Luke Meikle with a long pass over halfcourt. Meikle used his time wisely, getting Canty in the air with a pumpfake and drawing a three-shot foul with a desperation heave.
Three clutch free throws and one missed full court shot later, and the Mustangs had completed their comeback in dramatic fashion with a 80-79 victory.
Canty’s unfortunate foul didn’t diminish his standout performance on Thursday night. The forward led UCSB with 21 points and six blocks, and added 10 rebounds for his second double-double in a row.
Leland King II was the Gauchos’ leading rebounder with 15 boards, his best rebounding performance of the season. King also had 12 points, giving him his third double-double in a row.
Coming off such a brutal loss as the one they suffered on Thursday night, the Gauchos needed a strong bounce back showing on Saturday against the Highlanders. They got exactly that, thanks largely to a dominant game from King.
The graduate transfer had 17 points in the first half alone on Saturday in the Thunderdome, and finished with 22 on the night. His 13 rebounds gave King his fourth double-double in a row, and helped the Gauchos overcome a quiet 2-point night from Jalen Canty.
Neither team shot the ball particularly well from the field, as UCSB shot 39 percent while UCR shot 38 percent, but the Gauchos made up for it with 11 made threes on 28 attempts. Five of those threes came off the fingertips of Heidegger, who was second on the team with 19 points.
Despite leading by 24 points with just 16 minutes to play, the Gauchos came close to blowing yet another massive lead. Riverside’s DJ Sylvester sank a layup with 5:06 remaining to make the score 56-51 but a couple of Heidegger three pointers boosted the lead back into more comfortable territory for UCSB.
Highlander forward Alex Larsson was his team’s most efficient contributor with 10 points on 5-10 shooting, and his 11 rebounds gave the 6-10 senior a double-double of his own. Sylvester, at 4-13 from the field, was far less efficient, but still managed to lead Riverside with 13 points.
After playing two games in three days, the Gauchos now get a whole week off in order to prepare for a road game in Hawaii on Saturday, when they’ll take on the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii’s record of 10-5, 1-1 looks remarkably similar to UCSB’s, setting Saturday’s matchup up as an intriguing barometer for both teams.
UCSB takes on Hawaii on Saturday in Honolulu at 10:00 p.m.