UCSB still hasn’t reached the mountaintop, as coach Joe Pasternack likes to put it. But he did give his Gauchos a few minutes to enjoy the lofty vista they reached on Friday at the Thunderdome.
“I was just now congratulating them for making history,” he said after UCSB clinched the Big West Conference basketball championship with a 71-57 victory over Cal Poly. “Like I told them, this is permanent. There will be a banner that goes up here.
“But we are climbing the mountain right now. We have a long way to go.”
The victory gave the Gauchos (18-4, 12-3 Big West) a two-game lead over defending champion UC Irvine (15-8, 9-4) with just tonight’s 5 p.m. rematch against Cal Poly remaining on the schedule.
JaQuori McLaughlin, Devearl Ramsey, Robinson Idehen, Brandon Cyrus, and graduate transfer Destin Barnes will all be honored at the Senior Night game, but the celebration started on Friday inside the post-game locker room.
“We had a little moment,” said McLaughlin, who led Friday’s win with 15 points, seven assists and three steals. “We said congratulations to each other. But now we’ve got to get ready to go and finish the job.”
UCSB will be seeded No. 1 for the next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas and slotted to play in Thursday’s noon quarterfinal. The tournament winner will receive the Big West’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“Winning a conference championship was one of our goals at the beginning of the season,” McLaughlin said. “But we have more goals that we want to accomplish.”
The Big West title is UCSB’s first since 2010 and only the second out-right championship since the school upgraded its athletic program to NCAA Division 1 status during the 1963-64 school year. The Gauchos’ only other sole championship came in 2003.
“It’s huge,” Pasternack said. “The fact that our staff does such an amazing job building a culture and building a program that can be consistent is the hardest part.
“I’m just so happy for these players that they get an opportunity to hang a banner — something that will be permanent at UCSB in the Thunderdome.”
Part of making history on Friday was the extension of their school-record home winning streak to 16, with 10 of those victories coming this season. They were thieves in their own home, making 12 steals and scoring 21 points off Cal Poly’s 17 turnovers.
They also out-rebounded the Mustangs 32-27. It helped UCSB compensate for a cold night from the three-point line (3-for-16, 18.8%). The Gauchos made 23-of-39 inside the arc to get their overall percentage up to 47.3% but were still out-shot by Cal Poly (49%).
“We’re 16-0 when we win the rebounding war,” Pasternack pointed out, “and I think that was the biggest thing for us that we have to continue.”
Miles Norris put UCSB ahead for good, 15-13, with his second dunk off an alley-oop pass from McLaughlin with 11:22 left in the first half.
“That’s big-time for us, coming off the ball screen or the hand off,” McLaughlin said. “When it’s there, I’ll throw it up every time.”
Norris finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Ramsey and Ajare Sanni made three-pointers to extend the lead to 18-13. Josh Pierre-Louis then put the cap to a 9-2 run with a tomahawk dunk off his own steal, putting the Gauchos ahead 29-19. Sanni finished with six rebounds while Pierre-louis had a team-high four steals.
They were both held out of last weekend’s double-header at UC Riverside over “an abundance of caution” concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Pasternack said. “We didn’t have those two guys last week, and you could feel it as a coach. The impact those two guys make is unbelievable.”
UCSB increased its lead to 42-29 after McLaughlin scored a floater and then assisted a three-point play by Amadou Sow. Sow finished with 13 points and six rebounds.
But Cal Poly (3-18, 1-14) refused to go down easily. A three by Colby Rogers and a reverse layup by Keith Smith got the Mustangs back within 10 at 46-36.
The Gauchos responded with the next six points. Robinson Idehen jammed a put-back and Ramsey waded amongst Cal Poly’s post players to score a floater. Idehen scored 12 points while making all five of his field-goal attempts and 2-of-3 free throws.
Cal Poly’s Alimamy Koroma converted a three-point play off a hook shot and Rogers hit two more shots including another three to get the Mustangs back within 10, 56-46. Rogers finished with a career-high 21 points while Koroma added 17.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Pasternack said. “Every game is going to be a dog fight, and tonight was a dog fight.
“They make it really hard. They do a great job coaching. We’re going to have a really tough one again tomorrow.”
But McLaughlin took over from there. He passed from the baseline to assist Norris for a three-point play. He then got UCSB’s lead to 66-52 by intercepting a Mustang pass, getting the ball to Ramsey, and then getting it back on a lob to score a fast-break layup.
His two free throws with 1:07 left sealed the win at 68-54. The early Senior Night testimonials were soon to follow.
“JaQuori is a total player,” Pasternack said. “I think he’s the Big West Player of the Year. Hands down.”