The No. 2 UC Irvine Anteaters men’s basketball team took down the No.1 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos with a final score of 70-59 in one of the biggest Big West matchups of the season. 

Since their previous matchup in mid-January, which resulted in a 73-65 Gaucho win, both teams have been dominating their opponents. The Anteaters are 5-2 and the Gauchos are 6-1 in their last seven games. 

The entire first half of the game was a back-and-forth battle between both teams with the largest deficit being 6. 

Following the injury of freshman forward Koat Keat Tong and suspension of graduate forward Andre Kelly after getting into a scuffle in his previous matchup with sophomore guard Ty Johnson of the UC Davis Aggies, redshirt junior forward Jakov Kukic got the start for the Gauchos for the first time this season.

Kukic did not hesitate to make his presence known as he finished the first half as the Gauchos second leading scorer with 8 points, shooting 4 for 5 from the field.

Heading into the locker room, the Gauchos were on top 35-33 with none other than sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell as the team’s leading scorer with 15 points, and junior guard DJ Davis as the Anteaters’ top leading scorer with 15 as well.

Entering the second half of the game, a layup by sophomore center Bent Leuchten of the Anteaters tied the game 37-37 at the 18:18 minute mark. This would be the last time the Gauchos would have a lead or be tied with the Anteaters.

The largest deficit was 11, as the Anteaters were on top of the Gauchos 66-55 with under five minutes left in regulation.

Despite the Gauchos cutting the double-digit deficit to 7 with under three minutes left in the game, a mix of both ball handling by the Gauchos and the Anteaters’ shocking 5 offensive rebounds quickly put the Gauchos in crunch time. 

A jump shot by sophomore guard Cole Anderson at the 2:52 minute mark would be the last time the Gauchos put up points the entire game. 

The Gauchos rarely got their hands on the ball in the final three minutes of the game. UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack was looking for a shot clock violation to be called but never received it, resulting in both benches conflicting with each other. 

The Anteaters would go on to win the game with a final score of 70-59 with Davis as the team’s leading scorer with 25 points, followed by junior guard Dawson Baker with 14 points.

Despite the loss, Mitchell had one of his best performances all season, tying his season high of 25 points. No other Gaucho finished the game with double-digit points as both Kukic and senior forward Miles Norris were the team’s second leading scorers with 8 points each. 

The Gauchos and Anteaters are now tied for first place in the Big West as both teams are 11-3 in conference games this season. 

Kelly will be back in action for the Gauchos this weekend as they head to UC Riverside to take on the 17-10 third-place Highlanders who previously took down the Gauchos in mid-January of this year with a final score of 65-64.

A version of this article appeared on p. 8 of the Feb. 23, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.