The rebound was tipped toward the top of the key, and Max Heidegger seized both the basketball and the enormity of the moment:
“I thought this was a tipping point for us,” he said, “one way or another.”
Heidegger turned it the right way for UCSB by collecting the loose ball at the top of the key and sinking a three-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining to give the Gauchos a 65-63 win over UC Riverside at the Thunderdome.
The dramatic victory snapped a three-game losing streak for UCSB (13-7 overall, 2-3 Big West Conference).
“What a huge shot for Max,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “There are peaks and valleys in college basketball. Everybody goes through it.
“The teams that can come together when you’re in the valley, and climb out of it, are usually the ones that are most successful in March. That’s what we’re headed to.”
Heidegger scored 16 points. Amadou Sow, who led UCSB with six rebounds, also scored 16 points.
The game-winning shot came after a missed three by UCR’s Dikymbe Martin. Devearl Ramsey raced the ball up-court and missed a runner in heavy traffic. Teammate Matt Freeman scrapped for the rebound but his put-back also rimmed out.
The ball was punched out by a mob of Highlanders, but directly to Heidegger.
“I was just kind of waiting for it to come to me,” he said. “I had to shoot it — I knew there wasn’t any time left, so I just caught it and was ready to shoot it.”
The Highlanders (13-9, 3-3) got the ball to Khy Kabellis on the ensuing inbounds play. His long three glanced off the front of the rim, although the video replay showed that it came after the final buzzer, anyway.
“This is a turning point for us in conference, just getting on the right track and having that mentality every time we step onto the court,” said JaQuori McLaughlin, who returned to the lineup after sitting out Thursday’s home loss to Cal State Northridge with a pulled groin muscle.
The Highlanders actually out-shot UCSB in the game, 53.2% to 52.8%, but the Gauchos got them to miss four of their last five shots.
“Win or lose today, I thought we battled and played really, really hard defensively and in rebounding, and we competed,” Pasternack said. “We were a together team.
“Whatever happened, win or loss, I said, ‘OK, this team is ready to go on a run.’”
UCSB made the game’s first two baskets, but the Highlanders answered with two from three-point range. They led for the next 31 minutes.
Martin hit the first bomb and added three more baskets in the next seven minutes. They included a whirling three-point play which gave UCR a double-digit lead, 22-12. Martin and teammate Arinze Chidom scored 13 points.
Sow rallied the Gauchos to within 25-21 by scoring three of their next four baskets, including a three. He scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half.
But Sow’s three was the only one UCSB made in six first-half attempts.
“UC Riverside played a different defense than they’ve played all year,” Pasternack said. “They got us out of rhythm, took away some things that we were looking for, and then we just figured it out.”
A double-pump runner by Heidegger and Sow’s layup off a pass from Brandon Cyrus whittled UCR’s lead to 27-25. An unopposed dunk by the Highlanders’ Angus McWilliam, however, put them ahead 33-27 at the break.
UCSB finally found its range from the three-point line at the start of the second half, going 4-for-7 in the period. Matt Freeman made a pair during a two-minute span and Heidegger added a step-back bomb two minutes later.
That, combined with Robinson Idehen’s fast-break dunk after a steal by Cyrus, got the Gauchos within 42-40.
“I thought Brandon Cyrus gave us unbelievable energy — defensive energy,” Pasternack said. “We had our passion back today.”
UCSB kept turning it into a one-possession game with driving baskets by Idehen, Devearl Ramsey on a three-point play, Heidegger, and McLaughlin.
The Highlanders had an answer every time until Ramsey’s defense drew a crucial three-second violation with six minutes to go. Idehen followed with a layup off McLaughlin’s driving pass to put the Gauchos ahead, 54-53.
McLaughlin, who made just 1-of-5 shots in the first half, hit 3-of-5 in the final 20 minutes while getting five of his game-high six assists.
“Yesterday he did non-contact and was in pain, but what a valiant effort for him,” Pasternack said. “We were going to him at the end. He wanted the ball at the end.”
A jumper by McLaughlin and Ramsey’s lightning-fast break got the lead to three points. UCSB remained ahead, 62-58, after a runner by McLaughlin and a hook shot by Sow off McLaughlin’s pass with 2:57 to go.
“Their big man was guarding the ball screens really well,” McLaughlin said, “but when he stepped up, we just had to hit our big.”
The Highlanders rallied one last time on three free throws by McWilliam and a left-handed floater by Kabellis, putting them up 63-62 with 56 seconds remaining.
Dominick Pickett then picked Sow’s pocket on a double-team in the post. But after Martin’s miss, the Gauchos got one last shot at it — and Heidegger made it count.
“I was in the right place at the right time and hit the shot,” he said. “We don’t know exactly where we go from here, but I think it’s something we can build off of.”