Some five-week-old Rice pudding served as the food for thought as UCSB tipped off holiday week at the Thunderdome.
The Gauchos, who gave away a 22-point lead in a Nov. 16 home defeat to Rice University, remained Scrooge-ish throughout Sunday’s 68-50 basketball victory over Merrimack.
“That game is going to haunt us until our graves, that Rice game,” Matt Freeman said after leading Sunday’s win with a career-high 21 points. “That being said, it’s something that’s always in the back of our minds.
“The coaches have watched plenty of film of us after that game … It’s a big part of how we’ve improved, just working on those same things every day in practice. We’ve come a long way since then.”
UCSB (9-4) held Merrimack (6-6) to just 34.6% shooting and forced 16 turnovers while recording its eighth victory in nine games.
Freeman’s parents, John and Louise, were in attendance after having traveled from New Zealand for Christmas. He gifted them with a complete performance, grabbing seven rebounds and contributing to the Gauchos’ improved defense.
“Matt’s a big reason for that,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “I know he had 21 points and seven rebounds but, defensively, our weakness was Matt defending on the perimeter … and I thought he did an excellent job of defending.”
UCSB, which was forced to rally from an 11-1 deficit to defeat Southern on Friday, was raring to go from Sunday’s opening tip. JaQuori McLaughlin scored a running teardrop and a three-pointer in back-to-back possessions to send the Gauchos out to a 9-2 lead.
Robinson Idehen, a 6-10 junior, took a pass from Devearl Ramsey and threw down the first of his four dunks to get UCSB’s point total to 18. He came off the bench to get 10 points and seven rebounds.
“Every time I come in to play, I try to bring the level of energy up,” Idehen said. “I’ve always got to be ready.
“Games like Idaho State, when Amadou (Sow) got into foul trouble, I’ve got to be ready to step up. And that’s the way it is with everybody on our team.”
Jaleel Lord hit a pair of threes and a jumper to get Merrimack within 18-16. But Brandon Cyrus answered with a mid-key jumper inside the Warriors’ zone defense to trigger a 14-0 run. UCSB never let them get close again.
The Gauchos shot 50 percent and also won the rebound battle, 37-25.
“They’re very difficult to prepare for in one day, with all their nuances,” Pasternack said. “This is a team that went to Northwestern and won … Their coach does an excellent job of preparing them.
“It’s the first time since Washington last year that a team played a zone defense against us for the entire game. To our guys’ credit, we executed as well as I think we’ve executed in three years against a zone.”
Freeman, a 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Oklahoma, scored six of his points in the last 3:44 of the first half. That included the only three-pointer he attempted.
During three seasons at Oklahoma, 53 of Freeeman’s 84 field goals were three-pointers. Six of his seven baskets on Sunday came inside the arc, however. He also attacked the rim enough to draw a team-high four fouls and shoot seven free throws, making six.
“Coach always tells me that he wants me to be the complete player,” Freeman said. “A big part of that is to not just stay behind the arc and launch shots all game.
“My teammates did a great job of finding me inside … It makes it easy when they’re throwing you the ball and you’re right under the basket.”
He also made the hustle play of the game by diving onto the floor to beat Merrimack’s Juvaris Hayes to a loose ball and tap it ahead to Sékou Touré for a dunk. It gave the Gauchos their first double-digit lead, 26-16.
“Coach said it before the game: ‘Who are we going to see on the floor tonight? … Who’s going to be showing us some intensity?’” Freeman said. “Coach will literally show us film of plays when we didn’t dive on the ball to show that we weren’t working hard.
“That’s a testament to him because all he wants from us is to work hard. I saw an opportunity to tip the ball ahead to Sékou and I did my job.”
The Gauchos, who led 33-18 at halftime, got off to an even better start in the second half. They made eight of their first nine shots to out-score Merrimack 17-3.
Amadou Sow cleaned up the only miss and converted a three-point play with his put-back.
“We talked in the locker room and it was like, ‘OK, here we go again … Who are we going to be?’” Pasternack said. “We want to be able to play a complete game.
“We have really high-character guys who care about each other, care about the process, and are competitive. I think we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have older guys.
“This was a really good showing by our team.”
The showtime included McLaughlin’s back-to-back assists to Freeman — the latter on a behind-the-back pass while underneath the basket. He finished with eight assists, no turnovers and nine points. Ramsey added seven assists with just two turnovers.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams, and this team is extremely together,” Freeman said. “Some nights it’s going to be J-Roq scoring 20. Some nights it’s going to be all of us having similar points.
“Tonight was my night in terms of points, but it was all because of them accepting their roles … 15 assists combined between those two guys, right there.”
The Gauchos also cashed in nearly every break. Cyrus capped their 17-3 start to the second half by reclaiming a loose ball and beating the shot clock with a long three-pointer for their biggest lead of 50-21.
UCSB will now take a Christmas break before its final two non-conference games: Sunday at Louisiana and then Jan. 2 at home against Westmont. The Gauchos will then open Big West Conference play at Cal Poly on Jan. 8.
“We’re close — it’s scary,” Idehen said. “We’re just going to trust the process and keep working hard. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”