UCSB is coming off one of its best halves of the basketball season, but coach Joe Pasternack wants to get the whole package before Christmas.
His last chance before the holiday break will come today at 2 p.m. when the Gauchos play host to Merrimack College of North Andover, Mass. at the Thunderdome.
UCSB (8-4) has won seven of its last eight games which includes Friday’s 77-68 victory over Southern. But the Gauchos trailed 11-1 at the outset of that contest and 34-26 at halftime. They had to score 51 points in the second half to overcome the Jaguars.
“We had maybe one of our most complete halves both on offense and defense,” Pasternack said. “We executed on offense, shooting 57% and scoring 50-something points. And on defense, we held them to 42% from the field and, I thought, did a nice job. We competed, we played hard.
“It’s not who we play, it’s how we play. It’s not about the opponent. We have to be able to lock into that every single game.”
Today’s opponent does pose a threat to the Gauchos’ recent success. Merrimack (6-5), a program in transition to Division 1 basketball, has a winning record despite playing all but two of its games on the road.
“They beat Northwestern — a Big Ten team — at Northwestern,” Pasternack pointed out.
The Warriors also have road wins at Massachusetts-Lowell and Hartford on their resume. Their most recent game was a 69-60 home victory over Army.
They are led by 6-foot senior Juvaris Hayes, one of college basketball’s slickest thieves. His 371 career steals leave him just 78 short of the NCAA record for all divisions. He has 35 this season in 11 games.
Last year, Hayes became the first player in NCAA history to have at least 600 points, 200 rebounds, 200 assists, and 100 steals. This season, he leads Merrimack with averages of 10.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 3.2 steals
He and Mikey Watkins, a 5-11 sophomore averaging 2.4 steals per game, have the Warriors forcing opponents into an average of 17.6 turnovers per game.
Merrimack has struggled shooting three-pointers, making only 29.7% of its attempts, although 6-5 junior Devin Jensen is a threat at 40.4% (23-for-57).
UCSB’s own three-point percentage has inched up in recent weeks and is now at 33.8% even though senior guard Max Heidegger, its single-season record holder, has missed the last six games while in concussion protocol. Heidegger was averaging 14.0 points per game before suffering his injury.
The Gauchos shot 53.3% from three against Southern on Friday (8-for-15). Their two starting post players have been their most accurate shooters from three this season: 6-10 Matt Freeman is at 44.4% (20-45) and 6-9 Amadou Sow is shooting 38.9% (7-18).
“When Max gets back, we’re going to be even better,” Sow said. “Max is a great shooter.”
JaQuori McLaughlin, a 6-3 junior, has picked up the scoring slack during Heidegger’s absence. He and Sow share the team scoring lead with 179 points each (14.9 per game).
McLaughlin is shooting 46.6 percent overall and 38.3% from three (18-47). His minutes have also increased during Heidegger’s absence and now have him at a team-high 33.9 per game.
“What we do in practice, preparing for the games, gets me ready to play all those minutes,” he said.
Sow, who set UCSB’s freshman scoring record last year while earning second-team All-Big West Conference honors, is following that up with a strong sophomore season. He’s shooting 55% overall and averaging a team-best 7.8 rebounds to go with 14.9 points.
“Every single game, he sees a different type of defense,” Pasternack pointed out. “He faces a front, a switch, a trap, a guy in front of him and another behind him.”
And today, he’ll face college basketball’s Grinch of thievery.