JaQuori McLaughlin saved his best for last.
The UCSB sophomore got the shooters’ roll as time expired, propelling the Gauchos to a 69-67 victory over Cal Poly at the Thunderdome.
McLaughlin got the ball at the top of the key with about 11 seconds left. He tried to use a screen by Amadou Sow to get to the rim, but Cal Poly’s Jamal Smith was able to recover and force McLaughlin to the middle. With two seconds remaining and McLaughlin inside the foul line, he turned over his left shoulder and let it fly. The ball hit the front of the rim with 0.5 seconds left as McLaughlin slid back behind the 3-point line and rolled to his back as the ball hit off the top of the glass and swished through the net as time expired.
As the shot went up and hit the rim, UCSB coach Joe Pasternack tilted his body, as if to will the shot through the basket. Pasternack leapt to his feet and let out a fist pump as the team celebrated the win. McLaughlin was first greeted by Devearl Ramsey before being mobbed by his teammates. When the guard rose to his feet, he immediately began tapping on his left wrist, as if to say it was his time to shine.
McLaughlin, a transfer from Oregon State, picked a good time for his first collegiate game winner. The fade-away jumper came as no surprise to teammate Brandon Cyrus, who said after the game that when the team came down the floor for the final possession he just shook his head knowing McLaughlin would come through.
“I knew J-Roq was going to make that shot and when I saw him go baseline and turn back middle, he makes that shot almost every day at practice.
“He’s come from the Pac-12, he’s used to the big-time environments and he made the most of it.”
McLaughlin said the final play was designed for him, though he felt the team started their action a bit early. The Gauchos rebounded a Cal Poly missed free throw with 31 seconds left, which would have left a one second difference between the game and shot clocks.
“I was trying to get the last shot, so I kind of held it out,” McLaughlin said. “It felt good. I kind of tripped up a little bit, but got a bounce.”
UCSB (21-10, 10-6 in Big West) was able to overcome a 13-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining, giving the 3,200-plus in attendance plenty to cheer for down the stretch.
“The crowd helps when it’s like that,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think we could have done it without them. We made a couple of plays and they were getting loud. I think it gave us a lot of energy as a team.”
UCSB’s biggest lead was three points with 16:40 left in the first half. The team only led for 1:09 for the game, but held Cal Poly scoreless for the final 3:38 to secure the come-back victory.
“We have to be a gritty team and the last five minutes we were gritty,” Pasternack said.
“The biggest thing is we had a sold out arena tonight and I thought there’s no reason to give them kind of just a one-way game. I thought it would be better to kind of spot Cal Poly some points and try and make a comeback,” the third-year coach said, trying to hold back a smile. “We wanted to get the crowd so hopefully they’ll keep coming back to watch us.”
The Gauchos struggled in the early going on offense, though Brandon Cyrus, who is filling in for the injured Max Heidegger, was able to keep UCSB afloat and scored the team’s first seven points. He would finish with a season-high 13 points, perhaps none as emphatic as his huge right-hand jam with 17:45 left in the first half.
“That gave me a little confidence,” Cyrus said postgame. “I drove baseline and I beat the first guy and I saw the big was a little late. I was like ‘I’m just going to go for it’ and I took off and he didn’t even jump – he went underneath and I just threw it in.”
The Gauchos shot just 32.4% from the field and made just two of their 13 attempts from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. Cal Poly (7-23, 4-12 in Big West) opened up an 18-9 lead with 9:24 left in the first half. With 3:46 left, Robinson Idehen scored on a post hook shot to cut the deficit to 23-22 before the Mustangs closed the first half on a 12-3 run to take a nine-point lead at the half.
UCSB’s Sow played 5:16 in the first half after picking up two fouls and was held scoreless, while Ramsey went 0-7 from the field. Sow went on to score all 14 of his points in the second half, while Ramsey scored seven points on just 1-for-11 shooting, but made a number of key steals and dished out four assists. The Gauchos also got productive bench minutes from sophomore Sekou Toure, who finished with six rebounds (four offensive) and his and-one Euro-step layup with 1:15 left brought the Gauchos to within two, 67-65.
“He just has a nose for the ball and what a play he made at the end,” Pasternack said.
The Gauchos shot 56.5% in the second half, making five of nine attempts from distance. For the game, McLaughlin finished with 17 points and six assists and Sow had 14 points and seven boards.
With the win, UCSB finished tied for second place in the Big West with Cal State Northridge, though the Matadors will be the No. 2 seed in the Big West Tournament next week after sweeping the Gauchos this season. The Gauchos will play No. 6 UC Riverside at 2:30 Thursday in the Big West Tournament quarterfinal in Anaheim.
“Now everybody in our league is 0-0,” Pasternack said. “We go to Anaheim and it’s March Madness. Hopefully we can learn that if we commit to defense and rebounding, we can beat anybody.”
Saturday night’s win gave UCSB 13 home victories, which tied the school record set in 1991-92. Both teams finished 13-3 at the Thunderdome.
Before the game, the Gauchos honored their three seniors — Andrew Pickles, Matt Freeman and Heidegger, who rolled onto the court on a scooter and his left ankle in an air cast. Heidegger has been out since suffering a left ankle injury Feb. 27 and is out indefinitely.