Last-place Cal Poly is all that stands in UCSB’s way of its first Big West Conference men’s basketball championship since 2010 and its first out-right title since 2003.
The Gauchos (17-4, 11-3 Big West) and Mustangs (3-17, 1-13) will tip off at the Thunderdome at 5 p.m. tonight as well as on Saturday in the final games of the regular season. Spectators will not be allowed because of COVID-19 concerns.
The records of the Central Coast’s two Division 1 universities suggest that UCSB has a smooth path to the title. But coach Joe Pasternack has been down this road before. Last year’s 21-10 Gauchos needed JaQuori McLaughlin’s last-second, fade-away jumper to overcome a 7-23 Cal Poly team on Senior Night.
“This is sports, this is college basketball, and there’s not a big margin for error,” Pasternack said. “They have talent, we have talent, and it all comes down to your mentality on a day-by-day basis.
“Obviously, last year’s Cal Poly game showed that all records and standings go out the door. We were down 13 to them in the second half (56-43 with 11:08 remaining).”
The Mustangs’ last four defeats were all close games, with UC Davis edging them 68-66 in overtime last Saturday. UCSB’s defeat at Riverside on Saturday wasn’t close, 68-52.
“Our message on Monday and every single day this week was that we didn’t do what we do on Saturday … and we lost,” Pasternack said. “We didn’t follow our rules.
“Give Riverside credit, they did a great job. But we have to get back to doing what we do on offense and on defense. That’s our only concern. That’s our only focus. We’ve really had to get after it this week in practice, and the guys have done a great job.”
UCSB played last weekend’s double-header at Riverside without top reserve guards Ajare Sanni and Josh Pierre-Louis. They were both held out over “an abundance of caution” with COVID-19. Sanni is the Gauchos’ third-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game and ranks 10th in the Big West with a three-point percentage of .420. Pierre-Louis averages 5.7 points.
Pasternack said both players will be available this weekend.
“Not having those two last weekend was a tough pill to swallow,” he conceded.
McLaughlin enters his final two games at the Thunderdome as the prohibitive favorite to win Big West Player of the Year honors. The 6-foot-4 senior guard ranks second in the Big West in both scoring (15.95 points) and assists (5.4).
Amadou Sow, a 6-9 junior, is 11th in scoring (12.55), second in field-goal percentage (.557) and fourth in rebounding (7.3).
Sow will be going against 6-8 Alimamy Koroma, his former high school teammate at Napa’s Prolific Prep, who leads Cal Poly with averages of 12.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. His 7-2 wingspan has enabled him to rank second in the league in blocked shots per game (1.17).
The Mustangs broke a school record by blocking 13 of UC Davis’ shots on Saturday. And this weekend, they’ll try to block UCSB’s path to a championship.