UCSB had 2020 vision on Saturday night, redeeming the two basketball defeats which ended the last calendar year.
The Gauchos blew out long-time nemesis UC Irvine with a big second half, 79-63, to capture the Big West Conference Tournament championship at Las Vegas’ Michelob ULTRA Arena.
UCSB (22-4), which has won 18 of its last 19 games since those two losses, earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It will learn where it falls in the bracket when the selection show is televised today at 3 p.m.
“We didn’t forget about those games the whole year,” senior JaQuori McLaughlin said. “When we got to this game, we were ready and just did what we do as a team, scouted them as good as we could and we did a good job of following the game plan.”
McLaughlin was named tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting, which included 4-of-7 from three-point range.
He was joined on the all-tournament team by Amadou Sow, who had a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds, and reserve guard Josh Pierre-Louis.
“For us to beat Irvine, (Sow) was going to have to get double-figure rebounding, and he did that,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “JaQuori was the Player of the Year in this league, and it was like he had ice in his veins.
“Every shot he took, I felt like it was going in. I think he did, as well. And he’s been our leader this entire year. I’m just so happy for both these guys.”
Irvine (18-9) has long had UCSB’s number, beating the Gauchos in six of their seven previous Big West Tournament meetings. The Anteaters had also defeated them in 12 of their last 16 contests over the last seven years.
But UCSB out-shot UCI 56.7% to 44.4% and outrebounded it 34-30.
“When we finally found out last night that we were going to play them, everyone was excited and got locked in to go,” Sow said. “We all know that they’re a great team, but we had to prove to them that we’re a great team, as well. I think we did that tonight.”
The first two baskets of the game were three-pointers by McLaughlin and Brandon Cyrus, giving UCSB a quick 6-0 lead. But Irvine’s defense quickly recovered, forcing the Gauchos to miss seven of the eight threes it attempted the rest of the first half.
They kept the lead for most of the period by taking it right at the Anteaters. Miles Norris scored a running bank shot, Robinson Idehen flipped in a hook shot, Amadou Sow was fouled inside and made two free throws, and Josh Pierre-Louis split the defense with a runner for a 14-9 lead.
Isaiah Lee gave Irvine a boost, sandwiching a hook shot by Brad Greene by hitting a three and a fast-break layup to put his team a 20-19 lead.
The last basket was even more painful for the Gauchos when Ajare Sanni, the Big West’s Sixth Man of the Year and one of the best three-point shooters, landed on Greene’s foot and rolled his ankle. He was carried off the court and done for the night.
Pierre-Louis ran it right back at Irvine, however, with a scoring drive on UCSB’s next possession.
The Gauchos also got a three-point play by Sow and a step-back three from Norris to surge back ahead. A fast-break layup by Pierre-Louis after Norris’ steal and a hook shot by Idehen gave them their biggest lead of the first half, 31-24, with just under three minutes left in the period.
UCSB went scoreless the rest of the half, however. D.J.Davis made a jumper and two foul shots to bring Irvine to within 31-30 by the break.
The Gauchos out-shot the Anteaters 42.9% to 41.4% in the first half, but Irvine had the edge in rebounds, 21-17.
Norris gave UCSB a boost to start the second half. He scored off back-to-back drives and assisted a three-point play by Sow to fuel a 10-4 run.
Devearl Ramsey gave the Gauchos a booster shot by finding an open spot in the Irvine zone and pumping in a mid-key jumper. He then stripped the ball from the Anteaters to feed McLaughlin’s fast-break layup and scored off a slash to the hoop for a 49-41 lead.
McLaughlin took over from there by hitting a trio of threes in a four-minute outburst, keying a 15-6 run to put UCSB ahead by 16 points, 64-48, with 6:12 to go.
Norris then took his turn from the bonus arc, hitting back-to-back threes. He followed that up with a dunk off Sow’s pass to get the margin to 73-57, with 3:28 left. He finished with 19 points.
“Miles was really locked in going into today’s game,” Pasternack said. “The previous two games he didn’t play well. But I thought he was terrific tonight, and we don’t win this game without Miles showing up.”
The final daggers were applied by UCSB’s two senior guards, with McLaughlin beating the shot clock with a jumper from the elbow and Ramsey rushing the hoop on a drive to cap the 79-63 triumph.