UC Santa Barbara once again played its best basketball at home.
Ajare Sanni played his best against his old home.
The Gaucho graduate student, who was a freshman starter at the University of Pacific four years ago, torched the Tigers with a season-high 22 points on Saturday to lead UCSB to an 82-71 victory.
He admitted to being “definitely” motivated to play his old school, even though none of his former teammates or coaches remain at Pacific.
“I left the program a couple of years ago and it was just something I wanted to do,” Sanni said. “I wanted to get a dub (a win) for myself and the team.
“But at the end of the day it’s another game. I’m here to win every game.”
The Gauchos (5-2) had lost at Duquesne 72-61 just four days earlier. Pacific (3-6) was coming off a road win at UC Davis.
“When we’re at home we’re a lot more comfortable,” said sophomore point guard Ajay Mitchell. “We have the crowd so we have more energy.
“As a team, we have to do a better job of bringing energy, all the players. That’s the only thing that we’ve been missing.”
Although Sanni hadn’t played with any of the current Tigers, he’s long known their top scorer. Jordan Ivy-Curry, a redshirt sophomore guard from the Houston area, came into the game averaging 14.3 points per game.
“He’s a little younger than me but we kind of grew up playing basketball together ever since middle school,” Sanni said.
He helped to hold Ivy-Curry to just eight points on 3-for-12 shooting. Sanni led UCSB with three steals.
He got plenty of help from the rest of the Gaucho starters. Mitchell (19 points on 8-for-11 shooting) and Josh Pierre-Louis (eight assists) had productive nights from the guard line. Forwards Miles Norris (18 points, nine rebounds, three blocks) and Andre Kelly (11 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) helped the Gauchos out-score the Tigers in the paint, 44-26.
The Gauchos out-shot Pacific 58.9% to 44.3% overall and 46.7% to 36.4% from the three-point line. They didn’t pull away, however, until they’d tamed the Tigers’ outside shooting in the second half.
“At the end of the day, we competed at a championship level on defense,” coach Joe Pasternack said.
Pacific kept pace with UCSB through the first 15 minutes by making 6-of-9 threes. Tyler Beard banked in a long bomb to knot the game at 25-apiece with 5:43 to go in the first half.
But the Gauchos held the Tigers to 3-for-12 shooting from three in the second half to pull ahead by as many as 13 points.
“They can shoot the ball from four spots and they’re very tough to defend,” Pasternack said. “I really thought our guys competed and had an edge to them tonight.
“That’s what we have to do … Play with an edge and play together.”
The Gauchos showcased their togetherness by amassing 21 assists. They had 12 at Duquesne and only four in their other defeat at Northern Arizona.
“For whatever reason on the road, I think our passer is broke,” Pasternack said. “At home we have 21 assists, 23 assists (against North Alabama) … That’s the deal.
“We have to share the ball on offense and we have to play with an edge on defense.”
Pacific used a 9-0 run to rally to within 53-50 with 12:44 to go. But Mitchell scored seven of UCSB’s next 12 points and Sanni tallied the other five to get the lead up to 64-57. They scored 14 points apiece in the second half.
“The game just came to me a little bit more in the second half,” Mitchell said. “I felt like I had more of an advantage when I was driving.”
Sanni, known best as a three-point threat, got rolling with three scoring drives in the final five minutes of the first half. He wound up shooting 8-for-12 overall.
“They were expecting me to shoot every time so I know they would be pressed up on me,” he said. “I know I’m quick and that I could get past them a couple of times.”
Pasternack called it Sanni’s “most locked-in game of the year.”
“That’s who Ajare is and that’s who he has to be for us,” he added. “He has to lock in and play hard.”
Mitchell, who had made only 4-of-20 three-pointers coming into the game, hit all three of his attempts from distance on Saturday.
“It didn’t start well for me this season, but I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I work every day on my shots.”
Pasternack said the Gauchos will need to stay together if it hopes to get its first true road win next Saturday at Pepperdine. Their Nov. 11 victory over Fresno State came at a neutral site in Santa Cruz.
“Right now, we have really good individual players, but we’re not a team right now … We play like this,” he said, opening his hand to show five fingers. “We have to — every game — play like a fist. A closed fist.
“We’re going to get better and better, like we always have, as the year goes on. That’s what this is about right now, melding this team to be the best we can be as a team and not a bunch of individuals.”