Cal State Northridge's Ethan Igbanugo shoots a three-pointer over the reach of UCSB basketball defender Ajare Sanni on Saturday. Credit: Cal State Northridge Athletics Photo


Gauchos’ string of seven road wins had been the third-longest in NCAA Division 1 basketball this season

NORTHRIDGE — UC Santa Barbara’s high-flying, first-place men’s basketball team came back to earth like a lead spy balloon on Saturday.

Cal State Northridge pulled itself out of last place by gunning down the Gauchos with nine three-pointers and 19-of-20 free throws in a 72-67 upset at Premier America Credit Union Arena.

“Defense travels … Offense doesn’t,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “We didn’t defend for 40 minutes, and it got us.”

UCSB (18-4, 9-2 Big West Conference) had traveled well before reaching Saturday’s pothole. It had been heavily favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers to extend Division 1 basketball’s third-longest road winning streak of seven games.

But the Gauchos crashed against a CSUN team (5-18, 2-10) that was missing several injured players.

“I thought our guys showed great composure,” Matadors coach Trent Johnson said. “We had foul trouble, some guys fouled out, but the guys kept playing.

“We had contributions from a lot of guys that haven’t played.”

Pasternack had cautioned his Gauchos against overlooking the short-handed Matadors.

“We warned them yesterday … profusely,” he said. “But then today it’s on me. I take all responsibility. We as a coaching staff have to do a better job.

“If you don’t defend for 40 minutes, then you rely on your offense, and we had our worst shooting performance probably since Northern Arizona.”

The Gauchos were even more cold-handed than the Matadors were short-handed.  They were out-shot 44% to 32.8% overall and, more significantly, by a 45% to 22% margin from three-point distance.

UCSB still kept a one-game lead in the Big West race over UC Irvine (15-8, 8-3), which lost in overtime at resurgent Long Beach State on Saturday.

Long Beach (14-10, 8-4), which pulled into a three-way tie for third place with UC Riverside (15-9, 8-4) and Hawai’i (17-7, 8-4), will play host to the Gauchos on Thursday at 8 p.m. in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPNU.

Northridge asserted itself in Saturday’s first half by sinking 7-of-12 threes. Marcel Stevens made three of them during the first 13 minutes. Ethan Igbanugo’s two free throws just 33 seconds later gave the Matadors their biggest lead of the first half, 26-19.

Ajay Mitchell, UCSB’s hard-driving point guard, was kept in check by a compacted zone defense which clogged the key with Matadors. Mitchell, who has made just 24.5% of his threes on the season, was held to seven points — nine under his average.

“Credit to them, they played really, really well,” Pasternack said. “They were energized. They wanted it more. Coach Johnson does a great job.”

Josh Pierre-Louis, who had made just 2-of-11 threes all season, was the only Gaucho to take advantage of the wide-open looks. He hit all three of his threes in the first half, the last one to give UCSB a 37-35 lead.

But he fell hard on his hip just before halftime and was unable to return to the game. He still ended up as UCSB’s second-leading scorer with 11 points.

“His getting hurt in the game really cost us,” Pasternack said. “He was playing really, really well. He could barely move out there at the end of the first half.”

The Gauchos’ other four guards remained lost in Northridge’s twilight zone. They combined to make just 10-of-37 shots, 1-of-18 threes, and 4-of-8 free throws. The entire UCSB team made just six of the season-high 27 three-pointers that the Matadors dared them to shoot.

“I thought we got some really good looks,” Pasternack said. “The shots didn’t go down that normally go down for us. The guys that shot were who we wanted to shoot.

“Cole Anderson took 10 threes (and made just one). That’s who we want shooting. He’s one of the best shooters in the conference.”

CSUN’s Atin Wright made a long, ominous three just before the halftime buzzer to send the Matadors into the locker room with a 38-37 lead. He continued on to score 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half.

The ice-cold Gauchos, meanwhile, failed to thaw out in the locker room. They missed seven of their first eight shots of the second half which included all four of their threes. They even clanked four of six free throws during the period’s first five minutes.

The Matadors got another three from Stevens to surge to a 47-41 lead. He scored all 12 of his points by shooting 4-for-8 from three-point distance.

Miles Norris, who scorched the nets at Northridge last year with nine three-pointers and 31 points, single-handedly brought UCSB to life. He put the Gauchos ahead 55-49 by outscoring the Matadors 12-0 in a 2½-minute outburst which included a three, a layup, a baseline jumper and five free throws.

Norris finished with a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds.

Andre Kelly led all rebounders with 11 while Koat Keat Tong grabbed nine to help the Gauchos win the battle of the boards, 41-34. It was a hollow victory, however, since Kelly and Tong failed to convert their combined 11 offensive rebounds. They made just 3-of-12 shots between them.

Norris helped give UCSB its biggest lead, starting a fast break by swatting De’Sean Allen-Eikens’ shot hard off the backboard. The ball ricocheted to Ajare Sanni who fed Anderson for a layup and a 57-49 lead with 9:51 to go.

But the cold snap soon returned for the Gauchos. They made just 3-of-17 shots which included 1-of-10 threes the rest of the way.

The Matador backcourt had the right stuff with Wright. He outscored UCSB’s entire team 16-10 in the last 9:30.

“Atin has a tendency to do a little too much, and he did for a period,” Johnson said, “but he regrouped and started making plays.”

Wright was at his best with the game on the line — the free-throw line. He made  9-of-9 foul shots in the second half to finish at 11-for-11 in the game.

Anderson gave the Gauchos their last lead, 67-64, by making his only three with 2:41 to go. Wright answered him, however, with a game-tying three from the top.

UCSB never scored again, missing its last seven shots including five threes.

Mitchell was called for an offensive foul when he extended his arm into a defender while driving to the basket. Igbanugo then put CSUN ahead, 69-67, with a short jumper in the lane with 34.9 seconds left.

Igbanugo made 1-of-2 free throws after another Gaucho miss, leaving UCSB the chance for a game-tying three with 12.5 seconds remaining.

Wright, however, hounded Mitchell into a miss from the corner. He sealed the win with his last two free throws with 3.5 seconds to go.

“I don’t think people realize how big a win that is for this basketball team and this program, considering the magnitude of the team we just beat, with how well-coached they are and how talented they are,” Johnson said.