UCSB opened its basketball season on Sunday in an arena that was as quiet as a monastery.
Plenty of Gauchos, however, were ready to rumble at the Thunderdome.
Their depth was on full display as a dozen players scored in UCSB’s 92-55 romp past the University of Saint Katherine.
“It definitely affected the play a little bit,” said junior Amadou Sow, referring to the COVID-19 protocol which prohibited spectators. “But we know the fans aren’t going to be here to give us that, so we’ve just got to come out and play hard and find our own energy.”
Sow, a two-time All-Big West Conference forward, dominated the smaller front line of the NAIA opponent by making 10-of-12 shots for a game-high 20 points.
He played without senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin, his all-league sidekick, who was held out of action because of a slight muscle pull. But two sophomore newcomers stepped in to provide UCSB’s backcourt a potent one-two punch.
Ajare Sanni, a transfer from Pacific, responded to his first start as a Gaucho with 11 points and a team-best three steals.
“I thought Ajare played well,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “He played the two and the one because JaQuori was out.
“It was good for him to play someone, to handle the basketball. He made some good decisions: three assists and no turnovers. That was big. As a team, to have 24 assists to eight turnovers, that was a big deal.”
Temple transfer Josh Pierre-Louis, who only recently received a waiver from the NCAA to bypass a redshirt season, showed his explosiveness while contributing 12 points and six rebounds off the bench.
“Josh is a great, great kid,” Pasternack said. “He’s young — he’s only 19 years old — and he’s just going to keep getting better over the next couple of years.
“And that’s what’s so exciting, to have somebody who is so talented in our program who’s also so young and someone we can develop.”
The Gauchos made five of their first seven shots which included three-pointers by Brandon Cyrus and Miles Norris, a transfer from Oregon by way of the City College of San Francisco. Norris finished with 12 points and six rebounds.
Cyrus also assisted baskets by Sanni and Sow as UCSB raced out to a 10-3 lead after less than three minutes.
“The guys are looking for each other every time down the floor,” Sow said. “One of the comments in our locker room right now is to play for the guy next to you.
“We did that tonight, sharing the ball and playing for the open guy next to you.”
The Firebirds scored the game’s next seven points, with Kamron Fleming’s jumper cutting UCSB’s lead to 13-10.
But Pierre-Louis came off the bench to breathe new life into the Gauchos. He scrambled under the basket to rebound a teammate’s missed free throw, leading to a hook shot by Robinson Idehen.
“I’m just so anxious to get out there and play and meet my new family,” Pierre-Louis said. “I’m glad to get to Santa Barbara and get to know my new family. I love it out here.”
UCSB won the rebound battle, 47-26, with Idehen grabbing 11 misses in just 13 minutes of action.
Sanni’s quick hands got the Gauchos back-to-back baskets off turnovers — the first which Pierre-Louis converted with a dunk and the second which Sanni took in for a layup and a 21-10 lead.
Sow asserted himself around the basket for eight straight points during a span of just two minutes and 14 seconds.
Pierre-Louis capped UCSB’s 20-3 run by turning another teammate’s missed foul shot into a loose-ball layup and a 38-13 lead.
A three by former Santa Barbara High star Johnnie Coleman got St. Katherine’s inside of 20 at 42-23. Coleman finished with seven points while Joe Robinson Jr. led Saint Katherine’s with 10 points.
But Sow hooked in a put-back and then dunked off a dazzling baseline move to put the Gauchos back on track. Norris’ driving hook put UCSB up 48-23 at halftime.
A three by Devearl Ramsey got the Gauchos started in the second half. The senior point guard finished with seven assists with just one turnover.
“Seven-to-one, that’s huge,” Pasternack said. “He’s got to make everybody else better for us to be any good. We can’t have everybody on the court trying to score the ball.”
Seven different Gauchos scored in the first 5½ minutes of the period as they improved their lead to 65-28. The margin grew as large as 41, 81-40, when Sékou Touré made a three and Norris scored just 22 seconds later on a fast-break pass from Pierre-Louis.
“This is the deepest team I’ve played with so far since I’ve been here,” Sow said. “Every guy is interchangeable, from the guards to the bigs.
“Like you saw today, Jay Nagle is a four man who was playing the three. It just shows how versatile everybody is and how we could play different positions.”
It wasn’t perfect. Pasternack thought the Gauchos’ defense slacked off in the final 10 minutes when the Firebirds scored 21 of their 55 points. UCSB also shot just 30.8% from three-point range (8-for-26) while making just 4-of-10 free throws.
“I think we’re a better shooting team than it shows,” Pasternack said.
But the Gauchos, who started the season two weeks later than usual because of the pandemic, were just happy to be guarded by someone other than a fellow Gaucho.
“Playing against your teammates, you’re always going to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Pierre-Louis said. “This was a better feeling, to see where we are as a unit and how we compete against other players.”