Amadou Sow started UCSB’s basketball season with a bad hip, bad hamstrings, and a lot of bad shots.
But it’s all good now.
The 6-foot-9 junior scored 23 points on Friday to lead the top-seeded Gauchos to a 71-55 victory over No. 4 UC Davis in the semifinals of the Air Force Reserve Big West Conference Tournament Championship.
“I started the year off pretty bad … in bad shape,” said Sow, who shot only 42.4% through UCSB’s first eight games of the season. “I had one of the worst field-goal percentages I’ve ever had. My body wasn’t feeling right and everything.
“But now that we’re here, and able to advance to where we are today, my body has been feeling good and I’ve been able to help my team.”
The Gauchos (21-4), who have won 17 of their last 18 games, will play in tonight’s 8:30 p.m. final at Las Vegas’ Michelob ULTRA Arena against the winner of Friday’s late semifinal between No. 2 UC Irvine and No. 3 UC Riverside. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
Sow, who had 20 points and nine rebounds in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Long Beach State, made 7-of-12 shots for the second-straight night. He’s shot 64.4% over the Gauchos’ last 17 games to get his season percentage up to 57%.
He also made 9-of-10 foul shots on a night when UCSB’s free-throwing (28-for-34) foiled any notion of an Aggie comeback.
“Every day, before practice, it’s free throws,” Sow said. “During practice, free throws … After practice, free throws.
“Coach P (Joe Pasternack) always says free throws win championships, so we all try to take that mentality and knock down our free throws whenever we get the chance.”
Defense is also a big part of the Pasternack mantra. The Gauchos held UC Davis (10-8) to just 41.5% shooting which included 26.3% (5-for-19) from three-point range.
The Aggies had been held to less than Friday’s 55-point total only one other time this season — in a 72-51 defeat to UCSB on Jan. 29. Pasternack said that transition defense was a point of emphasis after the Gauchos gave up a season-high 87 points to Long Beach.
“Everybody was really locked in to fix it and improve our defense,” he said. “Guys followed the game plan to a T.
“UC Davis is one of the most difficult teams to prepare for — even in a week’s time, much less in 24 hours. And I thought our guys really absorbed the game plan quickly. We have our defensive rules, and they did a great job.”
JaQuori McLaughlin hit a pair of jumpers in the first two minutes to give UCSB a lead it would never relinquish. After the Aggies rallied to within 15-14 on Caleb Fuller’s basket, McLaughlin answered with two more jumpers. They included a bump-and-shoot, three-point play from the baseline.
The 6-4 senior — one of five Gauchos playing their final collegiate seasons — finished with 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting and four assists.
“It’s their last year,” Sow said. “Coach P always says you don’t want to have any regrets with your college basketball career.
“They really embraced the challenge and tried not to have any regrets and just get locked in and be ready to go every day in our practices and games. That’s why we’re at where we are today.”
UCSB gave up its fewest halftime total of the season to take a 33-21 lead. It then jumped on Davis with a 6-0 run to start the second half to improve its lead to 18 points.
The Aggies’ foul troubles began during that spree when point guard Damion Squire fouled McLaughlin and then drew a technical foul for taunting. The two fouls gave him four with 17:28 still left in the game. Squire, Fuller and Christian Enigwe — Davis’ leader with 15 points and eight rebounds — all fouled out.
“I think they showed why they’re the No. 1 seed and have had such a good year,” Davis coach Jim Les said of the Gauchos. “They’re good, they’re talented, they play hard and I thought they played well tonight.
“For us, we just looked physically, mentally tired tonight. Just didn’t have the same pop that we’ve had.”
The Aggies did give themselves a chance when a three-point play by Enigwe, a three-pointer by Elijah Pepper, and a layup by Enigwe reduced UCSB’s lead to 56-46 with 6:30 remaining.
But Ajare Sanni finished strong for the Gauchos, hitting a pair of threes while scoring 10 of his 16 points in the final six minutes as they turned the game back into a rout.
“Tomorrow, the stakes are obviously very, very high, but we’re going to treat tomorrow just like any game,” Pasternack said. “We’re going to wake up in the morning, we’re going to have our breakfast, we’re going to do our normal routine, we’re going to have our film session.
“We’re not going to change what we do. We’ll honor our process and be as ready in a short turnaround time as we can be.”