UCSB lost two key players to COVID-19 concerns but still gained RECORD-13 at UC Riverside on Friday.
The Gauchos needed little-used Sékou Touré to score eight points in the second half to hold off the Highlanders, 72-68, and extend their school-record winning streak to 13.
The victory puts UCSB (17-3, 11-2 Big West Conference) on the brink of the regular-season championship, with a two-and-a-half game lead over second-place UC Irvine (13-8, 8-4) with three games remaining.
UCR (10-7, 5-4), which will play host to the Gauchos again tonight at 7 o’clock, saw its title hopes roll off the rim when Zyon Pullin missed an open layup that would have tied Friday’s game in the final seconds.
Amadou Sow, Touré’s former high school teammate at Napa’s Prolific Prep, added the final free throws with 0.3 seconds on the clock to cap a 21-point, eight-rebound performance. JaQuori McLauglin added 15 points and seven assists. Devearl Ramsey scored 13 and Miles Norris chipped in with 11, which included a pivotal three-pointer with 46.6 seconds remaining.
Touré, who had just returned from an ankle injury, was pressed into service after UCSB suffered its first COVID-19 pandemic casualties. Reserve guards Ajare Sanni, the Gauchos’ third-leading scorer, and Josh Pierre-Louis were both held out of the game “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a university statement.
UCSB was still able to out-shoot the Highlanders 52.8% to 49.1% and out-rebound them 32-25.
Arinze Chidom, UCR’s leading scorer with 17 points, hit a pair of shots including a three-pointer to put his team ahead 5-4. Sow responded with a three-point play for a lead that UCSB would hold for the rest of the first half.
Jumpers by McLaughlin and Ramsey kept the Gauchos ahead, although seven-footer Jock Perry scored four quick points to get the Highlanders within 15-13.
A pair of close-range baskets kept UCSB in the lead. Brandon Cyrus scored a layup off Norris’ pass from the high post. Sow then saw an open lane when he got the ball up high and he drove in for a tomahawk dunk and a 19-13 margin.
Norris, who missed his first five shots, warmed up after McLaughlin’s steal led to his fast-break layup. After McLaughlin scored a floater, Norris added a pair of threes to cap an 8-2 run that gave the Gauchos a 29-21 lead.
But Riverside went on a 8-2 run in the final 3½ minutes of the half. A fadeaway jumper by Pullin drew the Highlanders to within 31-29 at the break.
Although UCSB made its first two field goals and two foul shots to start the second half, Riverside made three quick baskets including a three-point play by Oliver Hayes-Brown to take the lead, 38-37.
Touré got a kind bounce on a three-pointer, however, to trigger an 8-0 run for the Gauchos. McLaughlin and Ramsey scored in transition for the Gauchos’ next two baskets and a 44-38 lead.
Ramsey converted a finger roll off the drive and popped in a three to give UCSB its biggest lead, 57-48, with just under 10 minutes to go. But three straight turnovers — the first on a lazy pass against Riverside’s press — allowed the Highlanders to go on a 9-0 run.
Perry’s layup off a pass from Chidom tied the game at 57-all with 6:52 remaining.
The Gauchos nearly committed another turnover, but Touré got the loose ball and made a 12-footer to put UCSB back ahead.
Sow scored a pair of baskets to get the margin to 63-57, but Riverside came back with layups by Perry and Pullin.
UCSB still led 70-66 after Touré’s jumper with 1:34 to go and a three by Norris with 46.6 on the clock.
Pullin made two free throws less than seven seconds later. But when the Gauchos decided to not risk fouling him on a game-tying drive to the hoop in the final seconds, his unopposed layup rimmed out.
Sow was fouled on the rebound and made both free throws for the final margin.