IRVINE — UCSB lost a falling star on Thursday, but it may have found a rising one during Saturday’s 69-58 loss at UC Irvine.
The breath-taking play of backup center Robinson Idehen kept the Gauchos from getting blown out before a capacity homecoming crowd of 5,000 at the Bren Center.
“You just keep going, that’s just something we do,” Idehen said after rallying UCSB from a 20-point deficit to as close as eight points of the Big West Conference champions. “That’s something I do every time … Just keep going.
“I can never give up until that last buzzer goes off.”
The Gauchos played without leading scorer Max Heidegger, who severely sprained his ankle during Thursday’s win at UC Riverside. Brandon Cyrus started in his place and responded with eight points and four rebounds.
But Idehen was even more impactful while replacing another all-leaguer.
The 6-foot-10 junior from Spain rewarded coach Joe Pasternack for doubling his playing time by recording a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds.
“I tell you what, he made a case for, ‘Pasternack, what are you doing (for not playing him more)?’” UCSB’s third-year coach said. “He plays so hard.
“Heart and how hard you play replaces a lack of talent, and he does have a lot of talent. We have to get all of our guys playing at that level and with that type of motor.”
The points, rebounds, and minutes were all career-highs for Idehen.
They all came at a good time, with all-league center Amadou Sow struggling for the second-straight game against a big, physical front line.
Sow, who was held to six points at UC Riverside on Thursday, fouled out on Saturday after getting just four points and three rebounds. He’s reached double-figure scoring only once in the last four games.
Idehen found a different way to deal with Irvine’s monstrous front line.
“I’m going to do everything quick,” he said. “They’re pretty solid, like 275 (pounds) or what not.
“We just found a way around them. We’re quicker than them and more athletic than them.”
UCSB, 19-10 overall, dropped back into a three-way logjam for second place with a Big West record of 8-6. UC Davis and Cal State Northridge both caught the Gauchos with victories on Saturday, and Hawaii would do the same if they pulled out its late game over UC Riverside in Honolulu.
Irvine (21-10, 13-2) had already clinched its second-straight Big West regular season championship, getting 20 points and five assists from senior guard Eyassu Worku.
“They have four senior starters,” Pasternack pointed out. “We’re playing against guys who are seasoned. We’re without our best player and it’s a hard deal.
“But our guys didn’t quit, they kept grinding, and I’m glad for that.”
Heidegger made the trip from Santa Barbara and rooted on his teammates from the bench.
“Max is part of this basketball program … so that’s the expectation,” Pasternack said. “I have no idea if he’ll be back.
“He has a sprained ankle and he’ll see doctors this week, so we’ll see.”
Irvine’s smothering defense held UCSB to just 36.8% shooting. The Gauchos went scoreless for the first three-plus minutes.
The Anteaters missed their first six shots and then hit their next three, which included the first of Worku’s four three-pointers.
Tommy Rutherford’s layup put them ahead 7-0.
JaQuori McLaughlin’s three finally put the Gauchos in the scorebook.
Worku hit two more threes and Isaiah Lee added another to put Irvine ahead 16-6 after nine minutes.
UCSB missed nine of its first 11 shots but then rebounded — literally — when Idehen took the floor. He battled for a pair of put-backs that put the Gauchos back into the game at 25-14.
“If you own a business, Robinson is the kind of guy you want to hire,” Pasternack said. “He brings it every single day no matter how many minutes he plays, or if he’s having a bad day in school.
“It’s great to see his energy and how he does it. I’m really happy for the way he played.”
The Anteaters, however, soon nearly doubled UCSB’s score, 31-16, on Collin Welp’s back-to-back jumpers.
UCSB closed to within 11 after a Matt Freeman jumper and two free throws by Devearl Ramsey. The foul shots extended his string of consecutive makes to 23. He’s converted 39 of his last 41.
But it took the Gauchos as long to score in the second half as the first. They missed their first three shots and then threw away their next two possessions.
Brad Greene, whose put-back gave Irvine a halftime lead of 35-22, scored a hook to start the second half. The 6-11, 270-pound center finished with a double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Rutherford’s put-back had the Anteaters ahead 41-22 before UCSB finally scored with 16:28 to go on Idehen’s two free throws. He scored 16 of his points in the second half.
Irvine’s lead grew to 20 points, 46-26, on a three by Evan Leonard.
But Cyrus brought the Gauchos back to within 54-42. His two threes sandwiched a driving pass to Idehen which the junior center converted with a three-point-play dunk.
“He was a 34% three-point shooter at DePaul, and he makes them in practice,” Pasternack said of Cyrus. “For whatever reason, he hadn’t been making them in the games.
“We’re going to need him to knock down some open threes, because they’re not guarding him (at the three-point line). They’re daring him shoot. He’s got to knock them down and go from there.”
Idehen slammed in another dunk off a screen-and-roll play with McLaughlin to get UCSB back to within 12, 59-47, with 4:08 to go. McLaughlin finished with a game-high six assists.
Idehen had two more put-backs to go with a three by Freeman to reduce Irvine’s lead to 63-55 with 48.9 seconds left.
But UCSB ran out of time — and of Idehen — when he fouled out in the final minute.
When asked if it was his best game as a Gaucho, Idehen replied, “Nah, not my best, not my best … We took an L, so it’s not my best game. I’d rather win the game.”