BIG WEST MEN’S BASKETBALL: UCSB wary of Riverside’s hot touch
UC Riverside might be considered a long shot at UCSB tonight, having lost all eight of its true road games this basketball season.
But the Highlanders are also good at making the long shot, which makes them a dangerous guest at the Thunderdome for the 7 p.m. game.
“They’re nationally ranked with their three-point percentage,” said Gaucho coach Joe Pasternack, noting Riverside’s marksmanship of 36.8 percent (154 for 418). The Highlanders make 9.1 threes per game.
UCSB (12-3, 1-0 Big West Conference), by comparison, is shooting a healthy 34.5 percent from distance.
The Gauchos got a wakeup call on Wednesday against Cal Poly, which was playing them to a stalemate with less than eight minutes remaining at 46-all. UCSB’s defense dug in, however, to hold the Mustangs to 4-for-17 shooting the rest of the way in a 65-56 win.
“It was a great lesson, that no matter who you’re playing, or where you’re playing, every game in conference is going to have the intensity ratcheted up,” Pasternack said. “We don’t have that margin of error to let up — we’ve got to be at our best for 40 minutes to win.
“Moving forward in conference, every game is going to be a war.”
Riverside (6-11, 0-1) made eight three-pointers in the first half against Cal State Northridge to take a seven-point lead in its league opener, but wound up losing 84-83. The Highlanders made 14-of-30 threes in that game, led by Dikymbe Martin’s 5-for-8.
Martin, a 6-1 junior, ranks among the Big West scoring leaders with an average of 16.4 points per game and 46.3 percent shooting from three. Ajani Kennedy (52.8 percent), a 6-8 sophomore, and Elkaz Dragan (40 percent), a 6-5 freshman, are also deadly from distance.
“Martin is a really good player, and they also like to go into their big kid, (7-foot, 235-pound senior Menno) Dijkstra a lot,” Pasternack said. “We’re going to have to do a good job on him in the post.”
Defense has helped the Gauchos get off to their best start since the 1988-89 season when they opened with a 15-1 mark. Their field-goal percentage defense rthis season of .390 ranks 24th nationally and their three-point defense of .281 is even better at No. 14. They also allow just 63.7 points per game to rank 30th.
But sophomore guard JaQuori McLaughlin believes they’d be foolish to feel satisfied with those numbers.
“We’ve definitely got to show maturity as a team coming into Saturday,” he said. “We’ve just got to follow the game plan and not take anyone lightly.
“In our losses this year, we didn’t follow the game plan, first of all, and then our defense was not very good. I think if we play defense and make that our staple, we can go far this season.”
McLaughlin is averaging 11.3 points per game. UCSB’s potent backcourt also includes 6-foot-6 Ar’Mond Davis (14.0 points) and Devearl Ramsey (11.7). Ramsey has also been an emotional leader, and he’s aware that the Gauchos could be set up for an emotional letdown after Wednesday’s win over their arch-rival before a season-best crowd of 4,816.
“Whether it’s me jumping around or screaming or talking to the guys, I know I have to get our guys going so we can have the best outcome in the game,” he said. “I feel like if I have energy, everyone else will have energy.”
UCSB has also begun to integrate returning All-Big West guard Max Heidegger back into its player rotation. He’s appeared in only four games this season, missing the first nine because of a concussion and then sitting out two more with a strained muscle in his leg. He took just two shots in 15 minutes of playing time during Wednesday’s game, although he did convert a crucial reverse layup down the stretch.
“Huge bucket,” Pasternack said. “(He had) two assists, too … We just want to bring him along slowly.”
The junior guard is one of the few veterans on a Gaucho squad that features seven newcomers among its top eight scorers in total points. The one exception is 6-7 senior Jarriesse Blackmon (5.5 points), who was a key to UCSB’s defensive effort on Wednesday while grabbing seven rebounds.
“Jarriesse is kind of like our glue guy,” Pasternack said. “He doesn’t have an ego, he’s not looking to score, and you need that. He plays so hard.
“He’s a big reason why we are 12-3 right now, because of his absolute intensity on the defensive end, being able to guard a small four and challenge threes.”
And that will be the biggest challenge that UCSB faces tonight against Riverside.