After a shocking defeat to a CSU Northridge team that has sat near the bottom of the Big West standings for the entire year, the UCSB men’s basketball team regained their composure and began a new winning streak with victories against Long Beach State and UC Davis. With the two wins, the Gauchos have been able to maintain separation in the Big West Conference and hold onto the top spot in the conference standings.
After losing to the CSUN Matadors in Northridge, the Gauchos stayed on the road to take on the Long Beach State Beach. Early on in the conference matchup, the Long Beach players’ size and length was too much to handle for UCSB, as Beach were able to score 43 first-half points, most of which were scored in the paint. Additionally, these points were scored efficiently, as Long Beach State Beach shot a solid 52.9% from the field.
The Gauchos had an active offense as well, as they scored 38 points in the first half of play on 52.9% shooting as well. UCSB’s offense in the first half was led by senior forward Miles Norris and graduate forward Andre Kelly who scored 9 and 8 points, respectively. However, even with a solid offense, the Gauchos found themselves trailing by 5 points at the half.
The second half was a different story for the UCSB defense, as they found a lot more success trying to make the Beach uncomfortable in the paint. In the final half, Long Beach State’s shooting regressed to 40.7%, as they were only able to score 29 points.
“I thought our guys played extremely hard,” said head coach Joe Pasternack. “I thought our guys competed really hard on the glass, and it was all about our second-half defense; holding them to 40% from the field. It’s really hard to do that on the road.”
Even with an improved defense, the game still went down to the wire, as timely free throws sealed the win for the Gauchos. Free-throw shooting has been a point of emphasis for the UCSB coaching staff.
“We hit some really big free throws at the end, and that was a huge part for us,” said Pasternack. “Calvin Wishart hit two in a row, and I think we were 13 for 16 after going 0 for 3 from the free throw line in the first half.”
In the end, the Gauchos were able to hold on and beat Long Beach State by a score of 75-72. Sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell had an impactful game, as he finished with 17 points and 10 assists. A few days later, UCSB traveled back to the Thunderdome to take on the UC Davis Aggies.
Early on, both teams traded baskets, while UC Davis took their only lead of the game, which they held on to for just 54 seconds. The Aggies were led by junior guard Elijah Pepper, the leading Division I scorer in all of California, who had 17 first-half points. The Gauchos were able to weather the storm by having a spread-out scoring attack. Wishart led UCSB in scoring with 11 first-half points, while Norris had 8. At the half, the Gauchos had a 6-point lead of 38-32. Unfortunately, the lead came with a cost, as freshman forward Koat Keat Tong was forced to exit the game with an injury.
In the second half, it was more of the same, as UCSB was able to score efficiently and increase their lead to hold on for the win. However, at the end of the game, a skirmish between the two teams broke out, as Kelly and UC Davis sophomore guard Ty Johnson were ejected from the game. A day after, the Big West Conference issued one-game suspensions to both Kelly and Johnson.
“I really don’t know what happened,” said Pasternack immediately after the game. “We’ll go back and watch the film and get administrators involved, and we’ll see what happens.”
In the 84-74 victory for the Gauchos, Mitchell led the way again with 24 points. Senior guard Josh Pierre-Louis was right there with him, as he added an additional 18 points.
With the two victories, UCSB improved its conference record to 11-2. For their next game, the Gauchos will stay in Santa Barbara to take on the UC Irvine Anteaters. UCI is right behind UCSB in the standings, as they have a record of 10-3 and will look to leave the Thunderdome with the top spot in the Big West tied up.
A version of this article appeared on p. 8 of the Feb. 16, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.