The rise of Josh Pierre-Louis’ star as a UCSB basketball player came at 11 a.m. during Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Air Force Reserve Big West Conference Championships.
“You’ve got to get up at 6:30 (a.m.) for COVID testing, but that’s 9 o’clock back home for me,” said the sophomore transfer from Temple. “I told my coaches, when I’m at home, I’ve already gotten my workouts done (by this time).
“I’m an East Coast kid, so the early games are no big deal for me.”
Pierre-Louis was a big deal on Thursday for the top-seeded Gauchos, coming off the bench to score a career-high 24 points in a 95-87 victory over No. 9 Long Beach State at Las Vegas’ Michelob ULTRA Arena.
UCSB (20-4) advances to face No. 4 UC Davis (10-7) in today’s 6 p.m. semifinals. The Aggies beat No. 5 Cal State Bakersfield 58-56 on a last-second basket by Ezra Manjon.
“We’re on a grind … It’s a slow grind,” Pierre-Louis said. “We want to get somewhere good.”
The 95 points were the most ever scored by the Gauchos in the Big West Tournament. Their two first-team all-leaguers also reached the 20-point mark: JaQuori McLaughlin with 22 and Amadou Sow with 20. UCSB shot 50% from the floor (31-for-62) and was rock-solid from the free-throw line at 81.3% (26-for-32).
Sow also got nine rebounds to just miss his sixth double-double of the season. His backup, Robinson Idehen, was able to play only eight minutes because of a gimpy ankle.
“I probably played Amadou a few too many minutes (29), but that’s what we had to do to win,” Pasternack said. “I told him yesterday in practice that I thought his legs — his athleticism — was the best I’ve seen all year. He’s really healthy at the right time of the year.”
But Long Beach (6-12) nearly made it the end of UCSB’s year. It rallied furiously from a 17-point deficit during the final 10-plus minutes, getting as close as four points with as much as two minutes remaining. The 87 points were the most UCSB has allowed all season.
“They never quit,” Long Beach coach Dan Monson said of his team. “I can’t think of another team in 34 years that I’m any more proud of than this team because, right down to the end, they kept fighting.”
The Beach had to play small after its top post player, Joe Hampton, injured his knee in the first 90 seconds. Sow dunked moments later on a lob from McLaughlin and UCSB never trailed again.
Colin Slater, who nearly matched Pierre-Louis by scoring 20 points off the Long Beach bench, said he was stirred when he saw the “tears in his eyes.”
“He was like, ‘I really want to play,’ and he wasn’t able to,” Slater said. “We said to each other, ‘That’s our brother, so let’s go.’”
But Pierre-Louis, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Plainfield, N.J., was also ready to go when he entered the game. He scored eight consecutive points to put the Gauchos ahead 21-9 with 12 minutes still left before halftime. He made 9-of-10 shots in 22 minutes of action, including 3-of-4 from three-point range.
“Josh was terrific,” Pasternack said. “He’s an amazing athlete and basketball player. He’s got a special future ahead of him. He really injected energy into us, as he always does when he comes into the games.”
Miles Norris’ buzzer-beating fadeaway sent the Gauchos into halftime with a 44-35 lead.
McLaughlin scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half, starting with an alley-oop dunk off Devearl Ramsey’s lob in the opening seconds.
But the Beach went on a 17-6 run to get right back into the game. Slater, who made 4-of-7 threes, also scored back-to-back baskets off his own steals to bring his team to within 75-69 with just under six minutes to go.
Long Beach shot 47.9% for the game, with Jadon Jones making 6-of-7 shots including all five of his threes for 18 points. Chance Hunter added 16.
“They play a style of play that we really haven’t faced this year,” Pasternack said. “They’re the fastest-tempo team in our league, and they did a great job. We weren’t ready for it.
“That’s not who we’ve been as a defensive team. We’re fortunate to be sitting in the winner’s circle. But credit to them of how hard they played. They’re a good team.”
McLaughlin remained steady in the clutch, however, scoring eight points in the final 1:42. That included a three-point play off Ajare Sanni’s pass with 1:19 remaining.
“I don’t get nervous in basketball,” he said. “We’re the No. 1 seed and we know who we are. We just have to do what we do every game.”
Long Beach’s fate was sealed when Isaiah Washington was called for a flagrant-1 foul after elbowing Sanni in the mouth while trying to make a steal with 30 seconds to go. Sanni made both foul shots, finishing with 11 points. Sow then used the extra possession to dunk off Pierre-Louis’ pass to give UCSB its final, eight-point margin.
Although Monson argued the flagrant designation, he said the Gauchos deserved to advance.
“To their credit,” he said, “they sustained the good body blows that we gave them.”