Up by 22 points with just 12 minutes remaining in the second half, the UCSB men’s basketball team seemed to feel that they could coast to a Saturday afternoon victory over Rice University — but the Owls quickly proved them wrong.
The Gauchos collapsed in the final 12 minutes, scoring just 17 points to the Owls’ 40. Sophomore guard Payton Moore capped off the comeback with a last-second layup to give the Owls their first lead since 11:10 in the first half and a stunning 82-81 victory.
“All we talked about all week was 10 four-minute wars,” UCSB Head Coach Joe Pasternack said after the game. “That was all we talked about at halftime. These are young kids, and unfortunately, it’s human nature to look at the scoreboard.”
The loss dropped UCSB to 1-2 this season and pushed Rice to 4-1.
It’s hard to imagine how the first half could have gone any better for the Gauchos, which made the second half all the more shocking. UCSB shot almost 62% from the field and raced into the locker room at halftime with a 47-27 lead.
Almost all of the Gauchos’ first-half production came from inside the paint. Senior guard Max Heidegger repeatedly beat his man off the dribble and finished through contact on the rim, while sophomore forward Amadou Sow and junior forward Robinson Idehen overpowered their defenders down low.
Heidegger finished with a team-high 21 points, while Sow was close behind with 19 points and 7 rebounds.
On the other side of the court, the UCSB defense made open shots scarce for Rice. Sophomore guard Trey Murphy III knocked down a few 3-pointers early on, and the Owls jumped out to a lead in the first few minutes; however, the visitors shot just 32.1% from the field in the first half and rapidly fell behind.
However, that Gaucho defense was wholly absent in the second half. Both teams scored at a steady clip to open up the final 20 minutes, and the Gauchos even managed to extend their lead to 22 points a couple of times, but only Rice managed to keep their initial pace up.
The Owls missed only 6 shots in the second half, but they were particularly unstoppable in the last 10 minutes. The visitors ripped off a 28-9 run to tie the game at 78-apiece, and it was clear that UCSB had no response defensively.
“Defensively, we got really exposed,” Pasternack said. “Same thing with UCLA, we can’t play two halves of defense.”
Rice scored more or less anyway they wanted in the second half. Murphy hit a couple more 3-pointers, and it seemed as though there was an open Owl either cutting or dribbling to the hoop on each and every possession.
The Gauchos, on the other hand, were reminiscent of a battered boxer praying to be saved by the bell — or in this case, the final buzzer. Sow and graduate transfer forward Matt Freeman provided almost all of the team’s offense in the final 10 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Owls from landing the knockout blow.
Freeman scored 11 points in the second half and finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists. It was the graduate transfer’s best game as a Gaucho so far, and his 2 steals in the first half set up some of the early offense.
Rice’s senior forward Robert Martin got open inside and converted a layup with 3:16 to go that cut the lead to 76-74, but Sow responded with a strong finish through contact on the other end. The sophomore Gaucho drew a foul on the contact but missed the free throw, keeping the score at 78-74.
A Moore layup and 2 free throws from sophomore guard Chris Mullins tied the game up at 78 and sent the large contingent of traveling Rice fans into a frenzy. Freeman coolly responded with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:10 remaining, but that was the only counterpunch the Gauchos had in them.
After a Rice timeout, Mullins came back on the other end and converted another layup with 41 seconds to go. UCSB milked the clock a bit on the next possession, but Heidegger’s missed fadeaway off the side of the backboard returned the ball to the Owls with nine seconds to go.
The Owls raced down the court, and Moore got inside once again for a layup with just four seconds on the clock. Pasternack had used his last timeout with around six minutes left in the half, forcing junior guard Devearl Ramsey to collect the inbounds pass and race down the court before hoisting a half-court attempt that fell to the right of the hoop.
“I was trying to regroup our guys defensively [by calling the last timeout],” Pasternack said. “I could see it slipping away. Probably needed it at the end, but I wanted to slow their run down and not wait. Obviously, the timeouts didn’t work.”
Moore was integral to the Owls’ comeback with 17 points in the second half after scoring just 1 point in the first 20 minutes of the game. Saturday’s performance was the sophomore’s best of the season and seemed to take the Gauchos by surprise.
“There was no game plan to stop Payton Moore,” Pasternack said. “We do what we do, and in the second half, he just punked us.”
The Gauchos will now have to regroup and get ready to take on Oregon State on the road on Wednesday night. The Beavers are at 3-1 this season with wins over Cal State Northridge, Iowa State and Wyoming and a loss at the hands of Oklahoma.
Senior forward Tres Tinkle leads Oregon State so far this season in the three main offensive statistics with 21.5 points, 10 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Tinkle is shooting 45% from 3 and at 6’7’’ will present a difficult task for the Gauchos with his combination of range and rebounding.
As a team, the Beavers are shooting just over 42% from 3-point land this season. That makes them the best shooting team UCSB has played so far this season, which could be an issue for the Gauchos given that Rice just shot 13-25 from the 3-point line on Saturday.