FULLERTON — A big finish at Cal State Fullerton on Thursday may be just the step UCSB needs for a big finish to its basketball season.
The Gauchos outscored Cal State Fullerton 16-3 during the final 5½ minutes to pull out a 75-66 victory at Titan Gym.
“It’s a big turnaround for us, 100%,” Max Heidegger said after leading the victory with 27 points, seven rebounds and five assists with no turnovers. “Winning on the road is always a good win.”
UCSB (17-9 overall and 6-5 in the Big West Conference) moved into a three-way tie for third place with Cal State Northridge and Hawaii. The Gauchos are just a half-game behind second-place UC Davis (7-5), which visits the Thunderdome at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“For us, it’s all about defense,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “We’ve won 15 of 17 games when we’ve held teams to under 70 points.”
UCSB forced Fullerton to miss its last six shots. The Titans also missed their first five.
The Gauchos, who jumped out to an 11-0 lead after making five of their first six shots, hadn’t played since the previous Thursday’s 84-75 loss at Davis.
“We had a great practice on Saturday,” Pasternack pointed out. “Sometimes when you have that much time off it’s hard — you’re rusty coming back on Thursday. But we had a great first four minutes.”
Matt Freeman had the hot hand to start, scoring a runner, a hook shot and a 3-pointer during the 11-point run. He added a whirling, mid-key jumper 90 seconds later to keep the Gauchos ahead at 13-2. He finished with 11 points and four rebounds.
“We need him to play like that for us to be a complete team,” Pasternack said.
UCSB kept its lead in double-digits, 26-16, after a pair of threes by Heidegger, another by Jay Nagle, and a ripping, fast-break dunk by Brandon Cyrus.
But the Gauchos opened the door for Fullerton by missing their next seven shots. The Titans, who missed three quick threes to start the game, rushed right through that opening.
Brandon Kamga scored a pair of runners, assisted Johnny Wang’s basket off another drive, and hit Fullerton’s lone three of the first half to reduce UCSB’s lead to 29-27.
“We did have our stretches when we didn’t play very well and didn’t defend very well,” Heidegger conceded.
Amadou Sow didn’t score his first points until less than a minute remained before halftime, getting a layup off JaQuori McLaughlin’s pass. The junior guard finished with five assists with just one turnover while also scoring 11 points.
Heidegger’s fall-down three from the top of the key put UCSB ahead 34-29 at the break. He wound up making 8-of-16 shots — 3-of-5 from three-point distance — and 8-of-12 free throws.
“I think he’s the best all-around player in the league,” Pasternack said, noting that Heidegger shared the team lead in both rebounds and assists. “He not only did that and score 27 points, but defensively he drew the assignment of the second-leading scorer in the league — I put him on Kamga — and he did an awesome job.”
Although Kamga finished with 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting, Heidegger harassed him into missing three of his four shots from 3-point range.
The Gauchos went right back to Sow inside to start the second half, with both Freeman and McLaughlin assisting him during the first two-plus minutes.
McLaughlin’s jumper and Heidegger’s coast-to-coast layup off a defensive rebound got UCSB back up by nine, 42-33, with 16:12 to go. The 27 points increased Heidegger’s scoring averages to 16.9 on the season and 18.7 in Big West play.
“Throughout my career — high school and college included — I’ve always been able to be productive as long as I was healthy,” Heidegger said. “I’m healthy right now. That’s always been the biggest thing for me.
“As I’m healthy, my game will follow.”
Forward Jackson Rowe, however, rallied Fullerton from both inside and out. He drove for a pair of baskets including a three-point play, converted a put-back, and made a trio of threes during a 10-minute spree in which he scored 16 of his 18 points.
Rowe’s last three gave the Titans their first lead, 59-57, with 6:48 remaining. Kamga and Austen Awosika followed with driving baskets, increasing their lead to 63-59 with 5:35 left.
“Jackson Rowe and Brandon Kamga are really hard to deal with,” Pasternack said. “They’re two of the best players in this league. It’s a great one-two punch for them.
“But our guys defended tonight, and that’s what we had to do. We had to defend. And I thought we got some big rebounds at the end of the game.”
UCSB won the rebound battle, 35-33. Sow also contributed a career-high five blocked shots.
McLaughlin got the biggest block, however. The Gauchos had just taken the lead back, 67-64, on a slashing bank shot by Heidegger and a jumper by Freeman on consecutive possessions. Kamga tried to drive it right back at UCSB, but McLaughlin leaped high to swat the ball out of his hands.
Ramsey rushed the ball downcourt and fed McLaughlin for a layup with an alley-oop lob, extending the lead to five points.
“That was probably the biggest defensive play of the game — huge credit to him,” Heidegger said. “J-Roq didn’t have his best game offensively, but he was huge for us defensively and I thought he played great tonight.”
The crushing blow came when Davon Clare lobbed a pass inside toward Kamga. Heidegger leaped high for the interception. He was fouled and made both free throws for a 71-64 lead with 1:52 left.
“I saw it coming,” Heidegger said. “I’m a decent athlete, so I could go get it.”
He made two more free throws, as did Ramsey after Cyrus’ offensive rebound with 57.2 seconds to go. The Gauchos were 10-for-12 from the foul line in the final 5:26 and 17-for-23 for the game.
Ramsey — who finished with nine points, three assists and two steals — has now made 32 of his last 34 free throws dating back to Dec. 29.
“I thought this was a true team effort,” Pasternack said.