UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center is sold out for tonight’s 7 o’clock basketball game between the Big West Conference’s top two teams, but UCSB’s Max Heidegger won’t be among those in attendance.
The Gauchos’ leading scorer was sent home to see a specialist on Friday after suffering a serious ankle injury during the first half of Thursday’s 65-60, comeback win at UC Riverside.
Heidegger was listed as “out indefinitely” after X-rays showed no fracture in his left ankle, UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. The severity of the injury, however, makes it highly doubtful that the senior guard would be able to return in time for the Big West Tournament on March 12-14.
“Whether he plays or not, we’ve played without him for a lot of games earlier this year, so we have experience with that,” Pasternack said. “We’ll coach whoever is out there and be ready to play.”
UC Irvine (20-10, 12-2 Big West) has already clinched its second-straight Big West regular-season championship. The Anteaters have won five consecutive games since losing a 64-61 heartbreaker at UCSB’s Thunderdome on Feb. 8.
They’ve also won all six of their conference home games and are 10-1 overall at the 5,000-seat Bren Center, where they will celebrate homecoming tonight.
“They execute so well with their big guys,” Pasternack said. “They’re the class of the league – they’re the best team – and they’ve shown it.”
As a team, Irvine ranks among the nation’s top 20 in field-goal percentage (19th at 47.5%), field-goal percentage defense (11th at 38.5%), and in rebound margin (third at plus-9.4).
The Anteaters are a balanced and deep team, with 6-9 sophomore Collin Welp averaging a team-high 13.3 points as well as 5.9 rebounds.
Senior guards Evan Leonard (12.6 points) and Eyassu Worku (12.2) are the first Anteater duo to crack the 1,000-point barrier for career scoring in the same graduating year.
Brad Greene, a 6-11 and 270-pound junior (7.3 rebounds), and 6-8 and 240-pound senior Tommy Rutherford (9.9 points) add bulk to Irvine’s imposing front line.
“We were really fortunate to get a win against them at our place and I’m sure they’re going to be ready to roll,” Pasternack said.
UCSB (19-9, 8-5) has been on a roll of its own, having won six of its last seven games to take a one-game lead over Cal State Northridge, UC Davis, and Hawaii in the race for second place in the Big West.
“We want to win as many games as we can and get some good momentum going into the tournament,” junior point guard Devearl Ramsey said. “We’re just playing them one game at a time.”
Ramsey scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half of Thursday’s win at Riverside, making 3-of-4 3-pointers. He’s hit 6-of-9 in the last two games after having made just 27.8% from three in his first 25 games (20-for-72).
“I’ve just been working on it,” Ramsey said. “I worked during the offseason, too, and the coaches have been trusting me and telling me to shoot.
“I shot 41% from three last year, so I know I can shoot.”
With Heidegger out, the Gauchos also need JaQuori McLaughlin to reassert himself. He was UCSB’s leading scorer while Heidegger sat out 10 games with a concussion. During an eight-game stretch after Heidegger’s return, however, McLaughlin reached double-figure scoring only three times.
His 22 points on Thursday were the most he’s scored in a Big West game this year, and 16 of those came during the second half after Heidegger’s injury. McLaughlin is averaging 13.7 points on the season with a 3-point percentage of .411. His 104 assists lead the team.
“JaQuori is really going to have to pick up the scoring load here with Max out,” Pasternack said.
The Gauchos will also need a bounce-back game from 6-9 sophomore Amadou Sow, a second-team all-leaguer last year whose six points on Thursday on 2-for-12 shooting matched his season-low. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 rebounds.
“It just wasn’t Amadou’s night,” Pasternack said.
Brandon Cyrus –- a 6-5 DePaul transfer –- is expected to take Heidegger’s spot in the starting lineup. The 6-5 junior got 10 rebounds, seven points and three assists in Thursday’s game.
With Roberto Gittens having taken a leave of absence, that leaves only a three-man bench of 6-10 junior Robinson Idehen, 6-5 sophomore Sékou Touré, and 6-8 sophomore Jay Nagle. Idehen and Touré combined for nine rebounds and eight points on Thursday.
“Robinson was outstanding — five rebounds in 14 minutes,” Pasternack said. “Sékou also has to continue to step up now that Max is out.”
The Gauchos will also need better shooting from their stretch-four combination of 6-10 graduate transfer Matt Freeman and 6-8 sophomore Jay Nagle. Freeman has made just 4-of-21 shots from 3-point range in the last six games while Nagle has converted only 3-of-11 in the last 12 games while having his playing time reduced significantly.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting Jay involved,” Pasternack said. “We’re going to need Jay going down the stretch.
“Jay Nagle is a valuable player and I didn’t play him enough, and that’s on me.”
Tonight will be UCSB’s last road game before the Big West Tournament. The Gauchos will wind up their regular season next week with games Thursday against Cal State Fullerton and Saturday against Cal Poly.
They have winning road records this season of 8-6 overall and 4-3 in the Big West.
“Our non-conference road schedule really prepared us,” Pasternack said.
But tonight should be their toughest test.