UCSB’s underclassmen sent their elders out as winners on Senior Night at the Thunderdome.
Junior Amadou Sow scored a season-high 22 points and sophomore Ajare Sanni chipped in with 18 as the Gauchos put a cherry atop their Big West Conference championship trophy with a 70-54 victory over Cal Poly on Saturday.
The victory completed a perfect 11-0 season at the Thunderdome for the 19-4 Gauchos.
“I’ve just wanted to teach these guys how to win and how to be leaders because they are such good players and good people — even better people than they are players,” senior co-captain Devearl Ramsey said. “I feel we are in good hands and we can keep going and really build something special.
“But right now, we’re trying to focus just on this year and do something special.”
Next stop is the Big West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. The top-seeded Gauchos, who won the Big West with a 13-3 record, will play at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the Mandalay Bay Resort against the winner of Tuesday’s 3 p.m. game between No. 8 Cal State Northridge and No. 9 Long Beach State.
“This is why you play college basketball and why I coach basketball,” Pasternack said. “There’s nothing like it, to watch these kids be able to enjoy March Madness. Hopefully we can keep playing for a little while here.”
Ramsey was one of five Gauchos presented with their framed jersey during a post-game ceremony. JaQuori McLaughlin, Brandon Cyrus, Robinson Idehen and Destin Barnes also played their final games at the Thunderdome.
Every Gaucho player, coach and staff member took a turn cutting down the net. The Big West championship was UCSB’s fifth, adding to titles won in 1999 (a Western Division championship), 2003, 2008 and 2010.
“It’s just been such an amazing journey since last March, not getting to be with our players except on Zoom in April, then May, June, July and August,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “Sept. 12 was the first time we were actually able to see our players.
“They were away from us for six months, and then it all began on the tennis courts, lifting weights and shooting on Dick’s Sporting Goods baskets for six weeks.”
Saturday’s victory was UCSB’s 13th in its last 14 games, completing a Big West season that began with two defeats at defending champion UC Irvine on Dec. 27 and 28.
“You set that goal of winning a championship at the beginning of every season,” Ramsey said. “Every year I’ve been here, our team has been really good. I felt we could win it every year.
“You always play to win, and this year we were clicking on all cylinders, and it happened.”
It did take a while to get warmed up on Saturday. UCSB missed 10 of its first 13 shots and trailed for nearly the entire first half. A three-pointer by Colby Rogers gave Cal Poly its biggest lead of the weekend, 20-14, with 7:25 left in the period.
Sanni gave the Gauchos’ ailing offense a few shots in the arm, sinking a three-pointer and a running floater.
UCSB also made a flurry of steals to slice off more of its deficit. Josh Pierre-Louis had four of his team’s 10 steals, leading to 16 Cal Poly turnovers.
“He changes the game,” Pasternack said of his sophomore transfer from Temple. “He’s going to be a great player. I’m just really excited to watch his development.”
Sow swiped the ball from Tuukka Jaakkola and dunked despite being fouled from behind by the Mustang center. Jaakkola was called for a flagrant foul and Sow made both free throws. The rare four-point play ignited an 11-0 run that took barely two minutes.
McLaughlin stole the ball from Keith Smith on Cal Poly’s next trip down court and lobbed to Sow for an alley-oop, fast-break dunk. He then drove into the Mustangs’ defense and fed Cyrus in the left corner for a three.
Sow capped the outburst by scoring on an up-and-under move to give the Gauchos a 27-22 lead. He made 8-of-10 shots, 6-of-6 free throws and grabbed 12 rebounds to record his fifth double-double of the season.
“I don’t think Amadou had his best game defensively (Friday) night, but I thought he was terrific tonight,” Pasternack said “Everybody is going to have to be at their best on Thursday at 11 a.m.”
Sow actually gave his starting spot to Idehen on Senior Night, but the 6-10 center sprained his ankle in the third minute. Idehen was held out of the rest of the game as a precaution. Jakov Kukic, a 6-10 freshman from Croatia, got three rebounds in 11 minutes of backup duty.
“Everybody is going to have to be ready to play (in the Big West Tournament),” Pasternack said.
Sanni added a step-back jumper and then stripped the ball from Rogers, leading to Ramsey’s fast-break layup and a 31-24, halftime lead.
Although the Mustangs out-shot the Gauchos 43.5% to 37.5% by halftime, UCSB scored 12 points off 10 Cal Poly turnovers to take a 31-24 lead into the break.
The Gauchos appeared headed for a rout when they scored the first six points of the second half. Sow tipped in a teammate’s miss and then reversed in a layup off Ramsey’s pass for a 37-24 lead.
But they missed 12 of their next 15 shots including seven straight three-pointers. A three by Mark Crowe triggered a 10-0 run for the Mustangs. They got as close as three points, 41-38.
Sanni righted UCSB’s ship by popping in a 15-footer and then a long three from the top. Ramsey and Sanni added two more threes to cap a 13-5 run that boosted the Gaucho lead to 56-45 with 5:32 to go. Sanni made 4-of-10 from three while his teammate connected on just 4-of-15.
“We’ve played amazing against the zone all year but we didn’t execute tonight for whatever reason — we’ll get that fixed on Monday,” Pasternack said. “But Ajare has been a zone buster all year.”
McLaughlin, quiet for most of the game, had his best Senior Night moments at the end to keep UCSB ahead. He scored a jumper from the left elbow of the key after an offensive rebound by Kukic, and then drilled the nail into Cal Poly’s coffin with a three for a 61-50 lead with 3:35 to go.