Paging Knute Rockne … Knute Rockne? … Is there a Knute Rockne in UCSB’s house?
Whatever pep talk the Gaucho basketball team is getting at halftime, it’s falling on deaf ears.
UCSB pooped out in the second half for the second time in six days, giving up 55 points while surrendering a 22-point lead in Saturday’s shocking, 82-81 defeat to Rice at the Thunderdome.
Payton Moore drove the final stake in the Gauchos’ shrinking heart, scoring a layup with four seconds remaining.
“All credit to Rice,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “Rice is a good team. They beat Penn by 20. They’re very, very explosive offensively.
“With that being said, defensively, we got really exposed. It was the same thing at UCLA. You can’t play two halves of defense.”
The Gauchos took a 34-32 lead into halftime in last Sunday’s game at Pauley Pavilion before the Bruins out-scored them by 18 points for a 77-61 win.
Saturday was much worse for UCSB (1-2), and it did more to reveal what could be a fatal flaw in the makeup of this year’s roster: the unwillingness of any Gaucho to get in front of a driver.
Not one took a charge all day on a team that plays only man-to-man defense.
“I’m glad we played this game,” Pasternack said. “It really told me a lot about our team. It exposed us in a lot of ways defensively.”
The Owls (4-1) had made nine three-pointers in the first 29 minutes but still trailed by 20 points, 66-46. But that’s when coach Scott Pera changed tactics, driving the ball right down UCSB’s throat. They made six layups and drew three fouls in the process, sinking all six of their free throws, to outscore the Gauchos 36-15 in the final 11 minutes.
“Huge effort by us,” Pera said. “Very happy. We knew we could play better. This team is very mature … We knew if we play the right way, we are pretty good.
“We played ridiculously well.”
UCSB actually out-shot Rice for the game, 55.7% to 52.8%, but the Owls made 76% in the second half. Moore and Trey Murphy III led them with 18 points apiece.
Max Heidegger led the Gauchos with 21 points, making 9-of-16 shots, but he was held to three shots in the final nine-plus minutes, making none. His last attempt with 12 seconds remaining was a baseline jumper in heavy traffic that hit the side of the backboard.
“We had a great defensive effort on Heidegger on the last possession,” Pera said. “That gave us a chance to win.”
Rice was also good at the start, making four of its first five shots from three-point distance. Murphy hit three in a row as the Owls took a 12-8 lead.
UCSB responded with a pair of scoring drives by JaQuori McLaughlin and its first three of the game, a corner bomb by Jay Nagle, to pull ahead 15-14.
Drew Peterson made the Owls’ fifth three in just six attempts to get their lead to 21-17.
But they cooled off for the rest of the half, missing 11 of 14 shots including all seven of their threes.
“We started out very well, then they got us out of what we wanted to do,” Pera said.
The Gauchos, meanwhile, were just getting warmed up.
McLaughlin made three free throws after getting fouled on a three-point attempt, triggering a 29-4 run in the final 9:37 of the first half.
Heidegger fueled the outburst, scoring off a fast break and adding a three just 40 seconds later.
Robinson Idehen asserted himself with three baskets in a two-minute spree, scoring inside off passes from McLaughlin and Matt Freeman, and then throwing down a thunderous follow dunk off a McLaughlin miss.
Even when Heidegger missed a free throw, the ball was tipped back to him and he converted the second chance with another hard drive.
Another layup by Idehen off another high-post pass from Freeman, and Sékou Touré’s whirling runner along the baseline, sent UCSB into the halftime locker room with a 47-27 lead.
The Gauchos out-shot the Owls 61.8% to 32.1% in the first half while out-rebounding them 21-16.
They would lose the rebound battle in the second half, however, 15-8. Rice only missed six shots after the break.
UCSB’s offense was able to keep pace through the first nine minutes of the second half.
Amadou Sow scored 11 of his 19 points in that time. It included a put-back that put the Gauchos ahead 66-46. He also led them in rebounds with seven.
But his offensive success also left Idehen — his backup and the team’s best rim protector — on the bench for all but five minutes of the second half. It opened the door for Rice’s drivers.
“I just went with Amadou and flipped those minutes,” Pasternack said, “and even played Matt Freeman a little at the five.”
A three by Nagle just inside the six-minute mark got UCSB back on track with a 76-63 lead. But Pasternack used his last timeout just after the make — a decision that would haunt him when the Gaucho offense had to free-lance down the stretch.
“I was trying to regroup our guys defensively because I could see it slipping away,” he said. “I probably needed it at the end, but I wanted to slow their run down and not wait.
“Obviously, the timeouts didn’t work.”
Murphy hit a three for Rice just 16 seconds after that timeout. The Owls then switched to a driving approach. They went on an 11-0 run, drawing within 76-74 on Moore’s runner with three minutes remaining. Moore scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half.
“I don’t know the reason, but we just could not guard the ball,” Pasternack said. “When you don’t guard the ball, if you’re not tough on the ball, and you’re not a relentless defender …
“We think offense is more important right now, and we got exposed.”
Sow scored off a baseline move while getting fouled. He missed the free throw, however, and 22 seconds later, Moore scored an unopposed layup on a drive that he started a good 30 feet from the basket. No Gaucho teammate came to help the beaten defender.
“There was no game plan to stop Payton Moore,” Pasternack said. “We do what we do, and in the second half he just punked us.”
After a Gaucho turnover, Chris Mullins drove the lane to draw McLaughlin’s foul. He made both free throws, tying the game at 78-all with 1:23 to go. He finished with 12 points.
Freeman appeared to save the day when he took Devearl Ramsey’s pass at the top of the key and sank his third three-pointer of the game, giving UCSB an 81-78 lead with 1:10 to go.
Freeman’s passing from the point was also effective: He finished with a team-high seven assists to go with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting, five rebounds and two steals. Ramsey added five assists.
“Matt played well on offense,” Pasternack said.
But Mullins drove right back at the Gauchos, scoring another runner with 0:41 on the clock.
Although Rice was also out of timeouts, the Owls knew what to do after Heidegger’s last miss: Run it right at the back-pedaling Gauchos. Moore’s final, game-winning layup beat the clock by four seconds.
“This will go down on some list for great effort and comeback,” Pera said. “Glad we got our mojo back in the second half.”
Pasternack did not make his players available for comment after the loss.