UCSB saved its toughest basketball road trip for last.
The Gauchos, winners of five of their last six games, have found little success recently in the arenas of their UC sister schools in Riverside and Irvine.
They travel to Riverside tonight at 8 p.m. before heading to a sold-out Bren Center on Saturday at 7 p.m. to play Big West Conference leader Irvine in their final regular-season road game.
“We really had a terrible game at Riverside last year and struggled mightily,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack recalled. “The year before, we were fortunate to come out of there with a victory.
“It’s tough to win on the road anywhere you go. It’s unfamiliar territory, unfamiliar baskets.”
The victories have been few, as well. In the previous three seasons, the Gauchos have gone 1-2 at Riverside and 0-3 at Irvine.
UCSB (18-9, 7-5 Big West Conference) was fortunate to beat the Highlanders (15-14, 5-8) at the Thunderdome on Jan. 25. The Gauchos needed Max Heidegger to hit a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left to nip Riverside 65-63.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for UCSB, with Heidegger describing it as “a tipping point” for their season.
But it’s serving as a rallying point for the Highlanders.
“You should be mad if you are any type of competitor for the way we lost that first game at Santa Barbara,” Riverside coach David Patrick said.
The Highlanders lost at UCSB despite shooting 53.2%.
The Gauchos, however, have held their opponents to less than 46% in the five victories they’ve claimed in their last six outings. UC Davis shot just 39.2% at the Thunderdome in last Saturday’s battle for second place which UCSB won 70-56.
“When we play hard, good things happen,” junior point guard Devearl Ramsey said. “We played good team defense and helped each other out, and good things happened after that.”
Riverside’s defense has been good enough to allow a field-goal percentage of just 40.9%, ranking second only to Irvine in the Big West. The Highlanders are also second to Irvine in rebound margin at plus-5.79, and they’re making a league-best 8.14 3-pointers per game.
“They’ve got enormous size – one of their post players is a 7-footer (7-1 and 275-pound sophomore Callum McRae),” Pasternack said. “They also really shoot the three well, so you have to pick your poison with them – inside or out.”
McRae ranks second in the Big West with a shooting percentage of 52.9% (UCSB’s Amadou Sow leads at 57.6%). McRae is also fourth in rebound average at 6.1 per game.
Dominick Pickett, a 6-3 junior, is second in the Big West in 3-point percentage at 47.4% while teammates Dikymbe Martin and Dragan Elkaz are also among the leaders at 37.3%.
Riverside got a boost last week with the return of 6-3 junior George Willborn III from a shoulder injury. He scored 17 points and grabbed four rebounds while beefing up the Highlanders’ defense in Saturday’s 61-49 win at Cal Poly.
“We got him here for his toughness,” Patrick said. “I met with him earlier (last) week and said, ‘You are healthy and we need your toughness back.’”
The Highlanders use a deliberate tempo to keep their scores low. They allow a league-low 61.0 points per game while scoring 65.0 themselves.
Their scores are also usually close. They’d lost five straight by a combined total of 12 points before their romp at Cal Poly.
“There’s so much parity in this league that anybody can beat you on any given night,” Pasternack said. “What it comes to is this: We’re 16-2 when we hold teams to 70 points or less, so we’ve got to be locked into that.”
Heidegger has helped put UCSB on the winning path. He’s averaged 19.9 points in his last 10 games, 18.6 in league, and 16.9 for the season. He also has the Big West’s best assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.45.
Heidegger also ranks among the league leaders in both field-goal percentage at 49.3% and 3-point percentage at 42.4%.
“He’s a lot stronger physically than he’s ever been since he got here, and that’s really helped,” Pasternack said.
Sow is averaging 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in league games (14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds on the season).
“My guys are just looking for me every time they have the ball in their hands,” he said.
Pasternack hopes Sow’s quickness will make a difference tonight against Riverside’s monstrous front line.
“He’s improving every game,” he said of his 6-9 sophomore. “People forget how young he is.
“He gets so much attention defensively from other teams, but hopefully we can go inside-and-out and take advantage of him.”
Tonight’s game will be a gut check, Pasternack added.
“They say the mental to the physical in basketball is 4-to-1, and we really believe that,” he said. “That’s something I got from coach (Bob) Knight (while serving as a student manager at Indiana).
“‘Won is done … It’s all about today.’”