The UCSB men’s basketball team will try to avoid its first four-game losing streak of the Joe Pasternack era when it plays host to UC Riverside at the Thunderdome tonight at 7 o’clock.
It will be no easy chore, with the Highlanders (13-8, 3-2 Big West Conference) coming off the high of Thursday’s 97-64 shellacking of Cal Poly.
“We’ve been here before, losing three in a row earlier this year,” said Pasternack, who’s in the midst of his third season as the Gauchos’ head coach. “I think everybody wrote us off then.”
UCSB (12-7, 1-3) bounced back from its early season skid by winning 11 of its next 12 games. The Gauchos have been close in nearly every game, suffering five of their seven losses after leading at halftime.
“You go through the expectations of the prediction of the media about where everyone is going to finish, and then you drop a couple,” Pasternack said on Friday. “But the guys have stayed positive and had a good practice yesterday, and we’ll practice again today and go from there.”
The question is will UCSB junior guard JaQuori McLaughlin be back from the injured list. The junior guard, the Gauchos’ leader in both scoring (15.2 points per game) and assists (3.8), strained his groin in Tuesday’s practice and sat out Wednesday’s 83-75 defeat to Cal State Northridge.
Pasternack listed his status as “day-to-day.”
“Having a guy like JaQuori out – a guy who’s such an integral part of our team both as a leader and player – obviously hurts,” said senior Max Heidegger, who returned from his own injury just three games ago. “But we can’t really control that. We have to bounce back, defend better.
“As much as we love JaQuori, we want him to be back as soon as possible. We know our team can’t be as good as we want it to be without him. But at the end of the day, it has to be next man up.
“We’ll try to hold down the fort as much as we can until he gets back.”
Heidegger, a 6-foot-3 guard, is coming off back-to-back games of 20-plus points, increasing his season average to 14.6 per game. He missed 10 consecutive games after suffering a concussion on Nov. 27.
“He really worked hard in the weight room and has gotten a lot stronger,” Pasternack said. “I think he’s almost 200 pounds now.”
Robinson Idehen, a 6-10 junior, got his first start of the season alongside 6-9 sophomore Amadou Sow on Wednesday.
“I thought Robinson gave us some really good minutes,” Pasternack said. “He played 22 minutes, got seven rebounds. I thought he defended unbelievably well in the first half on Lamine (Diane, last year’s Big West Player of the Year).”
He’s not sure if they will start his two big men together again tonight.
“Riverside presents different matchups, so we’ll have to figure that out,” Pasternack said. “But they’ll definitely play together more going forward.”
The Gauchos must worry about Riverside’s perimeter game, which bombarded Cal Poly on Thursday with 16-for-30 shooting from the three-point line. Dragan Elkaz and Khyber Kabellis made four apiece.
It was the most threes the Highlanders have ever made in Big West play and the fourth-most in program history.
“Riverside had a great non-conference season, knocking off Nebraska and Fresno State on the road,” Pasternack said. “They’re a very talented team and their size is enormous. They’re a team to be reckoned with.”
Riverside had been coming off back-to-back losses before its offensive explosion against the Mustangs.
“After a topsy-turvy week in the Big West, we said that somebody’s got to step up,” said second-year head coach David Patrick, a former assistant at TCU. “We followed the game plan and responded defensively, got some paint touches in the post, which is our strength. Our spirits were up.
“After we established touches inside, our big guys did a good job getting it out to the guys. I thought that really set the tone .”
Arinze Chidom, a 6-9 and 240-pound junior transfer from Washington State, leads a balanced Highlander lineup with averages of 11.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
“We’ve always stuck to it, whether it’s wins or losses,” Chidom said. “Everybody has the opportunity to score, we believe in each other and we go in with that attitude every day.”