When UC Irvine made a charge Saturday night, rallying from a 17-point deficit, UCSB drew a line the Anteaters couldn’t cross.
The Gauchos made 13-of-14 shots from the foul line during the final 13 minutes to hold off the defending Big West Conference basketball champions for a 64-61 victory at the Thunderdome.
“We work on free throws every day, so it’s just muscle memory and being confident in that moment,” said junior JaQuori McLaughlin, whose two foul shots gave UCSB a four-point lead with 12.5 seconds remaining.
After Collin Welp’s three-pointer got Irvine within a point, Devearl Ramsey made two more free throws with 5.0 seconds left. That forced the Anteaters to attempt an off-balanced three at the buzzer, and Evan Leonard came up short from the corner.
“It was a huge win for our program,” coach Joe Pasternack said.
UCSB, 16-8 overall, moves into a third-place tie with Cal State Northridge in the Big West Conference with a 5-4 record. The Gauchos, who won for the fourth time in their last five games, are now just a half-game behind Hawaii (5-4) and two behind Irvine (7-2, 15-10 overall.)
“Unfortunately, this win only counts for one, but what a week,” Pasternack said. “We had an opportunity to play the two top teams in our league and we won against the two top teams in our league.”
Amadou Sow followed up his 30-point game in Thursday’s win over Hawaii with a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday.
“Every game is going to be a hard game,” Sow said. “Even though we’ve won the last four out of five, they weren’t easy wins. Everybody can beat us and we can beat everybody.
“We’ve just got to keep that mindset and just keep working every single time we’re on the court.”
Irvine jumped out to a quick 6-3 lead, but Sow responded with back-to-back baskets to put UCSB ahead for the rest of the half.
Matt Freeman hit a jumper and assisted Max Heidegger on a give-and-go play. Robinson Idehen then rebounded his own miss and fed Brandon Cyrus for a layup to cap a 10-0 run and give the Gauchos a 13-8 lead. Idehen got seven rebounds off the bench on a night that Irvine, ranked No. 1 in the nation in rebound margin, won the battle of the boards 36-28.
“Robinson gave us great energy,” Pasternack said. “You don’t have a huge margin of error when you give up 15 offensive rebounds.”
Brad Greene made consecutive hook shots to rally the Anteaters to within 13-12, but Sow answered the next time down court by driving the lane and slamming in a dunk. He dunked again two minutes later on Cyrus’ pass.
Ramsey scored a pair of floaters, sandwiching a jumper by Cyrus, as UCSB pushed its lead into double-digits, 26-16.
The Gaucho surge was momentarily halted on Austin Johnson’s dunk for a three-point play. But Irvine coach Russell Turner was called for a technical foul after arguing a foul called on Ramsey’s fast-break runner.
Heidegger made the two technical foul shots and Ramsey made his pair to get their team’s margin up to 30-19.
Irvine’s only three-point make in six first-half attempts — a corner jumper by Jeron Artest — got his team back within eight.
But Sow sank a three a minute later to cap his 12-point first half as the Gauchos took a 35-24 lead into halftime.
UCSB outshot the Anteaters 56.5% to 32.3 during the first half. It was nearly even by game’s end, with the Gauchos shooting 43.5% to UCI’s 42.4%.
“Our first-half defense was excellent,” Pasternack said. “It’s hard to hold down a team like that for two halves.
“Going into the locker room up 11, we needed every point of that.
The Gauchos did get big jump in the second half. Back-to-back threes by Sow and Matt Freeman gave them their biggest lead of 17 points, 41-24, with 16:31 remaining.
Irvine finally got untracked from the three-point line with a pair of bombs by Leonard. He added a baseline jumper, and Colin Welp, who missed his first seven shots of the game, warmed up with a pair of leaners.
A hook shot by Greene reduced UCSB’s margin to 47-38 with 12:20 to go. Greene led the Anteaters with 16 points and six rebounds while Leonard added 12 points.
“Evan Leonard is a senior and a great, great player and Brad Greene is a monster,” Pasternack said. “I have no idea how to stop him in the post.”
McLaughlin attacked the Anteater defense to score the Gauchos’ next six points, converting four free throws and a 12-foot, step-back jumper for a 51-40 lead. He finished with 11 points.
But UCSB missed five of its next six shots, getting only a slashing fadeaway by Max Heidegger. Greene made a 15-foot hook along the baseline and converted a put-back as Irvine began controlling the offensive backboards.
Sow’s tip-in ended a four-minute scoreless drought for the Gauchos with 4:49 left.
“It was after a timeout, and everybody was telling me to roll after setting a pick,” he said. “The roll was there and I was able to get under my guy and put it back in.”
Irvine, however, took the lead, 56-55, on two free throws by Collin Welp with 3:32 left. The Anteaters increased it to three points after another offensive rebound which Leonard cashed in with a jumper with 2:27 left.
But McLaughlin rallied his teammates during a timeout, shouting “Attitude!” as they huddled.
“That’s the word that we talk about as a team when adverse moments hit us,” he said. “It’s all about attitude and how we’re going to respond as a team.”
Ramsey forced an Irvine turnover at mid-court after pressing the Anteaters from the end line.
“Devearl’s speed — we’ve got to use it better with him picking up full court, pressuring guards,” Pasternack said. “I think that gives us an advantage.
“They had 12 turnovers tonight. This is not a team that turns the ball over very often.”
The last big defensive play came from Sow on Irvine’s final shot.
“He jumped out on Leonard to save us from him hitting that three,” Pasternack said. “That’s a huge, huge thing.”
So was Saturday’s win.