UCSB lost its star again, but the Gauchos proved that all that glitters on their basketball team isn’t just Max Heidegger.
JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey had his back-court once again, rallying the Gauchos to a 65-60 victory at UC Riverside on Thursday.
“We love Max,” McLaughlin said after scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half, “but it’s just next man up.”
Although UC Irvine clinched the Big West Conference regular-season championship on Thursday, UCSB (19-9, 8-5 Big West) solidified its hold on second place by getting its sixth win in the last seven games.
The Gauchos, however, lost their leading scorer for the second time this season after Heidegger suffered what appeared to be a broken ankle midway through the first half.
Heidegger, who missed 10 games earlier in the year with a concussion, was taken to the hospital by ambulance for X-rays.
“I just feel terrible for Max,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “What he’s been through in his life, injury-wise, is unprecedented.
“He broke his back, had a stress fracture in his foot (both in high school), three concussions … That’s why you go to UC Santa Barbara, to have a great degree and background and be set for the rest of your life.
“We’ll be thinking about him and hopefully he’ll be OK.”
Although McLaughlin missed all six of his shots inside the three-point arc — four of those in the first half — he was a perfect 4-for-4 from three while making 10-of-13 free throws. He also led all players with four assists and had just one turnover.
“JaQuori played just an unbelievable game in the second half,” Pasternack said. “Devearl was amazing for us, too, hitting some huge threes.”
Ramsey scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half. He made 3-of-4 three-pointers and all five of his free throws.
But defense played just as big a role for UCSB, which held Riverside to just 39.6% shooting.
“When Max went down, we just kept telling ourselves, ‘Play harder, play harder,’” McLaughlin said. “It’s all about defense and rebounding.”
The Gauchos missed seven of their first eight shots, getting only a three from McLaughlin. Arinze Chidom hit a pair of threes to send Riverside (15-15, 5-9) out to an 11-3 lead after six minutes.
Robinson Idehen came off the bench and energized UCSB by ripping an offensive rebound away from the Highlanders and converting a three-point play.
But Riverside soon got its lead into double-digits, 16-6, on a three by D.J. McDonald.
It went from terrible to tragic when Heidegger suffered his injury when he stepped on an opponent’s foot while passing the ball to Matt Freeman with 8:27 left in the first half. He hobbled to the scorer’s table before collapsing on the court, writhing in pain.
“I’ve known Max for a long time now,” Ramsey said. “You never want to see a teammate down, especially when he’s one of your closest friends … but we wanted to do it for him.
“That’s what we said. We all huddled up and said that we’re doing to do it for Heid. He wouldn’t want us to sulk and be sad and not play hard. We wanted to play hard for him and that’s what we did.”
The bench kept UCSB in the game. Sékou Touré scored off an inbounds pass, Brandon Cyrus popped in a jumper, and Idehen reversed in a layup off Ramsey’s pass to bring the Gauchos to within 20-15.
UCSB’s starters shot 3-for-18 in the first half while the reserves made 5-of-8. Cyrus (10 rebounds) and Idehen (five) also led the Gauchos on the boards.
Callum McRae, Riverside’s 7-foot-1 center, hit four of his first five shots and put his team back up by 10, 25-15.
By the end of the first half, McRae had out-scored UCSB all-leaguer Amadou Sow 8-2 and out-rebounded him 4-0. McRae finished with 18 points and six rebounds.
But the Gauchos got as close as 25-22 on a three by Ramsey, a fast-break layup by Cyrus off Sow’s pass, and a jumper by Sow — his only basket in seven first-half attempts. He shot just 2-for-12 in the game.
Chidom’s runner put Riverside ahead 30-24 by halftime. The Highlanders out-shot the Gauchos 47.8% to 29.6% in the first half, but UCSB reversed that in the second (45.5% to 32%).
“Credit to them, they really took us out of a lot of stuff, with their scouting, and we had to make some adjustments at halftime,” Pasternack said. “And I thought our guys really responded.”
McLaughlin’s big second half started when Zyon Pullin hit him in the eye with an inadvertent elbow, earning him a technical free throw. His pass to a cutting Cyrus for a layup drew UCSB to within 36-34.
He also made a three, sandwiched by a pair of threes by Ramsey which he assisted, to put the Gauchos ahead, 46-42.
“We had our roommate connection — I knew where he was,” McLaughlin said. “I knew where he was and he hit the shots.”
Ramsey soon got his fourth foul however, and the Highlanders caught UCSB at 46-all on a basket by McRae and two free throws by George Willborn III.
Another three by McLaughlin put the Gauchos back ahead. Touré then rebounded a Freeman miss to give him a second chance, and the graduate transfer from New Zealand cashed it in with a baseline jumper for a 51-46 lead.
McLaughlin and Sow both made a pair of free throws to get the margin to 55-49 with 4:39 left.
The Highlanders turned it into a one-possession game with Dikymbe Martin’s three.
But another offensive rebounded — this time by Cyrus on a McLaughlin miss that failed to hit the rim — resulted in more redemption: McLaughlin got the ball back and, with the bench yelling that the shot clock was about to expire, hit a long three with 2:17 remaining for a 58-53 lead.
Riverside got as close as 59-57 on McRae’s hook shot with 59.2 seconds left. Ramsey, however, was fouled while attempting a three, and he made all three foul shots.
Touré made another free throw, and Ramsey sealed the victory with two more foul shots with 7.2 seconds to go to extend his string of makes to 21 in a row and 37 of his last 39.
“It really shows the character of these guys, playing through adversity,” Pasternack said.