The caring season led to the sharing season at UCSB’s Thunderdome on Thursday night.
Amadou Sow, playing with a heavy heart after the death of his father in Africa on Christmas morning, became the go-to Gaucho during an 87-66 basketball victory over Westmont College.
“He’s a beast down low,” guard JaQuori McLaughlin said after his 6-foot-9 teammate scored 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting. “Coach is always talking about getting the ball down low, and I’m definitely looking for him all the time. The other guards are, too.”
McLaughlin also had a big night with 22 points and four assists as UCSB (11-4) won for the 10th time in its last 11 games. The Gauchos assisted 22 of their 34 baskets while handing Westmont (14-1), the 11th-ranked team in the NAIA, its first defeat of the season.
“We’ve been without our second-leading scorer (Max Heidegger) for the past 12 games — we have a man down right now — and I thought we did a great job of sharing the ball, shooting 54% for the game,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said.
The Gauchos held Westmont to 40.6% shooting.
Sow, an All-Big West Conference selection last year as a freshman, was the Gauchos’ main option on the post. He had reached double-figure scoring only once in the previous five games while his father, Madani, battled a serious lung ailment in Mali.
“My teammates were with me every step of the way,” Sow said. “I appreciate them for that, being there for me as I was going through a rough couple of weeks in my life.”
UCSB made five of its first six shots including a three-pointer by McLaughlin to take a 12-6 lead after just three-plus minutes.
Westmont’s three-point shooting kept it in the game through the nine minutes. The Warriors made 4-of-6 from the bonus arc, including a pair by Justin Bessard. He also drove inside for a basket to reduce the Gauchos’ lead to 20-16.
Bessard, a 6-6 senior transfer, led all scorers with 27 points, making 10-of-18 shots which included 3-of-4 from three-point range. Cade Roth also made 3-of-4.
“He’s a good player, I give him credit,” Sow said of Bessard. “He gave us different looks. We have to guard him outside, guard him at 15 feet, you have to box him out.
“He played an all-around game, and that translates to any league pretty well, so I think he can play anywhere.”
But UCSB went on a 13-2 run when it started looking for Sow. He scored four consecutive baskets on passes from Sékou Touré, Devearl Ramsey, Jay Nagle, and McLaughlin.
“I think he really set the tone for the game at the beginning,” McLaughlin said. “Just going in to him really helps us get off to a good start.”
McLaughlin scored the Gauchos’ next seven points, which included a three-point play, to improve their lead to 33-18.
Touré’s first three of the season got the margin to 16 points. He finished with 11 points.
UCSB out-rebounded Westmont 43-29, gaining most of that margin during the first half (23-9) while it built a 44-27 lead.
“Rebounding-wise, we were getting smashed in the first half — in the second half, we were a better rebounding team,” Warriors coach John Moore said. “They’re bigger and they’re more athletic, they’re more physical.
“But with that being said, rebounding is also technique. No. 35, (Robinson) Idehen, and 0, Touré — both of those guys are outstanding offensive rebounders. I think those guys really attacked the boards.”
Idehen got a game-high eight rebounds in just 15½ minutes of playing time and scored nine points. Brandon Cyrus added six rebounds to go with 10 points and a game-high six assists.
“I rely on Brandon Cyrus so much,” Pasternack said. “I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s older, more mature.
“It might not show on a stat sheet but his toughness is something we haven’t had since I’ve been here. (Sékou’s) toughness, as well.”
The Gauchos matched their first-half start by making 5-of-6 shots to start the second period, this time getting threes from both Matt Freeman and McLaughlin.
But Westmont stayed hot longer, hitting 10-of-14 shots in the first 7½ minutes of the half. Bessard and point guard Abram Carrasco put on a show with threes and running tear drops. Carrasco finished with 16 points, five rebounds, and four assists.
“I think those two guys are big-time competitors, and the stage wasn’t too big for them,” Moore said. “They played very comfortably.
“Abram Carrasco is as quick as anybody. He splits defenses especially well and he makes great decisions. I thought J.B. and Abram were superb tonight.”
Bessard drew the Warrriors to within 10 points, 58-48, with a long bomb from the left side.
“When we cut it to 10, I thought, ‘If we can get it inside to single-digits, we might have a chance,’” Moore said. “I think going to that zone really helped, it allowed us to cut the lead to 10.
“We probably should’ve stayed in zone a little longer. They scored once against our zone and we decided to move out from under that.”
McLaughlin busted the zone with a three to ignite a 13-2 run. Ramsey capped it with a steal and layup for a 71-50 lead with 8:50 to go.
Although the Gauchos wound up winning by 21 points, Pasternack liked the competitive atmosphere of the contest.
“They played really hard — really, really hard,” he said. “It felt like a conference game.”
Conference games are next on the schedules for both teams. Westmont will travel to Life Pacific for a Golden State Athletic Conference game on Saturday while UCSB will travel to rival Cal Poly for its Big West Conference opener next Wednesday.
“I feel we’re ready,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll just get prepared for that game — coach always prepares us right — and stay together as a team.”