UCSB had to keep its cool against a physical Loyola Marymount basketball team on Monday, and that meant that coach Joe Pasternack had to keep JaQuori McLaughlin in the game.
“I wish I didn’t play him 36 minutes,” Pasternack said, “but he’s my security blanket out there.”
McLaughlin’s team-high 19 points and five assists led the Gauchos to a 69-58 victory over the Lions at the Thunderdome.
“We just played together as a team, got into a lot of huddles, kept our cool and focused on the game plan,” McLaughlin said. “I think we did a good job of not letting that get to us, sticking to the game plan and being a tougher team.”
UCSB (3-0) out-shot LMU (3-4) 48% to 30.5%, but the Lions were much better at rebounding their own misses. They reclaimed 24 of them while winning the rebound battle, 46-27.
Eli Scott — a powerfully built, 6-foot-5 senior wing — had 12 rebounds while matching his career-high of 31 points. Keli Leaupepe, a 6-6 and 248-pound Australian, was also tough Down Under with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
“They absolutely out-physicaled us, out-toughed us, and they wound up out-rebounding us,” Pasternack said. “But credit to them. They played hard and they are really tough. There’s a reason (Scott) is a first-team, All-WCC player in the same league with Gonzaga
“This is a very good basketball team we played tonight. They’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Gauchos made eight of their first 11 shots. They had to use most of the 30-second shot clock to do it, beating the buzzer with jumpers by McLaughlin, Destin Barnes and Devearl Ramsey. The last one put UCSB ahead 16-9 after eight minutes of play.
Loyola rallied by swarming its own misses. Leaupepe muscled inside for a reverse layup to pull the Lions to within 21-15. By that point, LMU had more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Gauchos had total (six).
But UCSB was better on the outside. McLaughlin hit a pair of threes, sandwiching another by Miles Norris, in a matter of just 1:33 to put the Gauchos ahead 30-19 with 4:53 left in the first half.
“Coach P told us all week that it was going to be a war, especially with the rebounding,” Norris said. “They’ve got some big, strong guys. Although I don’t think we really got the job done with the rebounding side of things, we got the win by just bringing the fight back to them.”
The Gauchos stumbled to the locker room, however, with three turnovers in the last three minutes of the period. They needed a driving scoop shot by Josh Pierre-Louis and a tip-in by Brandon Cyrus to take a 34-24 lead into the break.
The Gauchos shot 55.6% during the first half, making 4-of-9 from three. But they cooled off at halftime, missing five of their first six shots plus both of their free throws to start the second half. The Lions pulled within 34-28 on a jumper by Jalin Anderson.
“I thought this was a big challenge for us,” Pasternack said. “In the first half, we were really clicking on offense, but in the second half we weren’t. They were throwing punches and punches and punches, and I think we only scored two points in the first eight minutes.
“But we just kept fighting. Sometimes you have to play in a game like this to get better.”
Norris, a 6-foot-10 junior transfer, snapped UCSB out of its funk by scoring a runner, assisting a jumper by Ajare Sanni, and sinking a three from the top to get the lead back to 41-32.
“I’m still getting used to the way we play, but I’ve got really good teammates and we’ve got pretty good team chemistry,” Norris said. “All the guys get along on the court.
“I’ve just got to do what I can to get open shots for our shooters, play defense, rebound and hit my own shots.”
Check, check, check, and check: Norris finished with four assists, four blocks and two steals, a team-high six rebounds, and 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting.”
“We’ve been on him relentlessly, every single day, about being relentless with energy and effort — and he did that,” Pasternack said.
A runner by Sanni and a long three by McLaughlin put the margin back into double-digits, 46-35, with 9:05 remaining. Sanni, a sophomore transfer from Pacific, finished with 11 points.
“Ajare’s ability to score the ball, move without the ball, and make steals on defense is big,” McLaughlin said. “And Miles, I don’t know how many blocked shots he had, but that really helped.
“His energy on the court and his ability to hit open shots and rebound is great for our team. They’re great additions to our team.”
LMU scored the game’s next seven points to close to within 46-43. But Sow — who hadn’t scored or rebounded since the first three minutes — got untracked with a pair of foul shots. He scored eight of his 12 points in the next five minutes.
“It was a physical game and he got into foul trouble,” Pasternack said, “He’s got to play tougher on defense without fouling, that’s the bottom line.
“But I really thought the last time we brought him in, and went to him, he made some huge plays.”
The newcomers kept the Gauchos rolling. Sanni hit a three from the corner, Norris assisted a left-handed floater by Sow and then took a steal in for a slam dunk in a nine-point run that took the lead back up to 55-43 with four minutes to go.
“We have older guys,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just the maturity of our team and the attitude of our team. When they went on their run, we talked about it and said, ‘That’s their run right there. It’s going to stop and now we’re going to go on ours.’”
The Lions couldn’t get closer than eight the rest of the way. And when they did, McLaughlin’s free throws after getting hit by one of Leaupepe’s beefy elbows kept them at bay.
“He hit me in my upper cheek, around my eye,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a big kid and they’re an aggressive, strong team, so you’ve got to respond to that.”