Ajay Mitchell (17 points, 10 assists) and Andre Kelly (14 points, 10 rebounds) record double-doubles for the Gauchos
LONG BEACH — UC Santa Barbara’s Josh Pierre-Louis removed his name from the missing list in dramatic fashion on Saturday.
A gimpy hip forced him to miss the last half of Thursday’s upset basketball defeat at Cal State Northridge and three of his first six free throws lipped out for misses at Long Beach State on Saturday.
But his steal with 1:11 remaining and two go-ahead foul shots just two seconds later rallied the Gauchos to a dramatic 75-72 victory at the Walter Pyramid to keep the Gauchos alone atop the Big West Conference standings.
“Josh worked really hard to get back, and we definitely needed him to be ready to go,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “He just brings so much energy. He had eight rebounds, too, which were huge.”
Pierre-Louis also scored 13 points while nearly becoming the third Gaucho to record a double-double in Saturday’s frantic affair. Ajay Mitchell scored 17 points with 10 assists and Andre Kelly chipped with 14 points and 10 rebounds as UCSB (19-4, 10-2 Big West) stayed a game ahead of UC Irvine (16-8, 9-3) in the conference race.
Calvin Wishart scored only two points, but they were the final death blows for Long Beach. His clutch free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining left Long Beach needing a three-pointer to force overtime, and Marcus Tsohonis’ rushed attempt fell well short of the rim.
“Everyone who was on the court gave a lot of energy,” Mitchell said. “Josh had incredible energy on defense, got some rebounds, and he got some great free throws at the end.
“Calvin, same thing. We needed that.”
The Beach (14-11, 8-5), the Big West’s defending regular-season champion, came into the nationally televised contest as the league’s hottest team. It had notched its sixth-straight win in overtime on Thursday against Irvine.
“It was a great college basketball game tonight — a great atmosphere, a great crowd,” Long Beach coach Dan Monson said. “I’m pleased. I think we’re getting better.
“The team leading the league comes in here, and they played well. I thought we did a lot of good things.”
His team ended UCSB’s season last year with Jadon Jones’ buzzer-beating three-pointer in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament.
“Long Beach, they got it last year — we lost to them in the tournament — and so we for sure wanted this game,” Mitchell said. “We knew it was going to be physical … It’s always a physical game.
“It’s always great to play against them because they’re a great team, too.”
The Gauchos had to hold the Beach to 40.7% shooting in the second half to rally from a 43-38 deficit. They out-shot their opponent 50.9% to 47.5% for the game.
The Beach, the nation’s No. 3 team in offensive rebounds per game (14.0) and 13th in rebound margin (plus-7.4), out-rebounded the Gauchos 34-28.
Aboubacar Traore led Long Beach with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Lassina Traore (no relation) added 16 points and nine rebounds.
“They’re really hard to play against,” Pasternack said. “They’re just relentless on the boards. We lost the rebounding war but I thought our guys really tried hard and rebounded really well. Our guards rebounded — Josh had eight.
“And the key to the game was to hold them to 40% from the field in the second half.”
Three-pointers by Cole Anderson and Miles Norris helped UCSB keep pace with Long Beach early. The Gauchos, however, missed their last five threes of the first half.
Pierre-Louis pushed them ahead by scoring a pair of highlight-reel baskets. He spun through the key for a whirlwind, 360-degree layup and then threw down a tomahawk dunk off another drive to give UCSB a 26-24 lead.
Mitchell followed that up by assisting three consecutive baskets inside — one by Norris and the next two by Kelly — for a 32-28 lead with 5:04 left in the first half.
“Andre really played hard … and played really, really great,” Pasternack said. “For us to take the next step, he’s going to have to continue to be consistent and play that way.”
The Beach responded with a 15-4 run, capped by back-to-back, fast-break dunks by Jadon Jones and Amari Stroud.
UCSB needed Norris to beat the halftime buzzer with a 17-foot jump shot to draw to within 43-38 at the break. Norris scored nine of his 13 points in the first half.
Long Beach extended its lead to 47-53 with 13 minutes to go, but UCSB surged back ahead with an 8-0 run.
“That’s a team that starts four seniors and a veteran point guard,” Monson said of the Gauchos. “They are who they are and they don’t beat themselves.
“And they’re a great road team. They’ve won at Hawai’i, at Fullerton, at Irvine, and now at Long Beach. They’re going to be tough to beat in league if they continue to be as good a road team as that.”
UCSB improved its road record to 10-3 overall and 6-1 in league.
The Gauchos used a four-point possession to catch the Beach at 53-all. Mitchell got the first point on a technical free throw after Chayce Polynice was called for a flop. Mitchell then drove the key before flipping a pass out to Ajare Sanni for a three-pointer.
Sanni put the Gauchos ahead with a runner two possessions later.
“Ajare and Calvin didn’t play a ton, but Ajare hit a huge three for us, and Calvin came off the bench and hit two huge free throws,” Pasternack said. “K.K. (Koat Keat Tong) came off the bench and really played hard defensively (while making all three of his field goals).
“It was a great night of contributions from everybody.”
The final 10 minutes were a back-and-forth affair in which neither team led by more than three points. Mitchell kept the Gauchos rolling with a pair of runners and a floater off a loose-ball recovery.
He also found Norris open for a three which gave UCSB a 65-62 lead. The 10 assists matched Mitchell’s career-high which he first set against Arkansas-Pine Bluff last year and then matched in this year’s season opener against San Francisco State.
“It’s always going to be in Ajay’s hands at the end, and I thought he was spectacular with his passing,” Pasternack said.
Pierre-Louis’ driving basket kept the margin at three with 4:24 to go.
Mitchell was called for a technical foul when he threw up his left arm to fend off Tone Hunter on a drive to the basket. Although Hunter was called for a foul, Mitchell’s hand also inadvertently struck Hunter in the face.
Mitchell missed his one-and-one free throw and Jones made both of the technical foul shots to give the Beach its last lead of 72-71 with 1:49 remaining.
Hunter stole the ball from the Gauchos but Pierre-Louis swiped it right back. He was fouled and made both free throws to put UCSB back ahead, 73-72, with 1:09 left.
The Gauchos, who were 0-for-3 from the line in the first half, made 13-of-16 in the second half.
“Our whole team works every day, relentlessly, on free throws, because we say that free throws win championships,” Pasternack said. “At first it was a struggle but, those were two huge ones by Josh — and Calvin, too, with the game on the line.”
Both teams traded misses on their next possessions. Jones, whose three beat the Gauchos in last year’s Big West Tournament semifinals, missed this time with nine seconds remaining.
Wishart rebounded Jones’ miss and was fouled with 3.1 seconds to go. He made both foul shots and Tsohonis’ attempt at a game-tying three fell well short of the rim.
“As coach always says,” Mitchell said, “‘Everything isn’t always as bad as it seems or as good as it seems … A loss is a loss. We knew we should’ve won that (Northridge) game. We didn’t play well, but we’ve got to bounce back really quick in this conference.’
“We did that today. And we’ve got another game on Saturday, so we’ve got to be ready.”
The Gauchos will play host to UC Davis (14-10, 7-5) at the Thunderdome at 7 p.m. Tickets to the Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival will be raffled off to students in attendance.
“That was a tough one, and now our biggest challenge is the response for Saturday,” Pasternack said. “We didn’t have a very good response after an emotional win over Cal Poly.
“You’ve got to have a short memory, win or lose, and be ready to work tomorrow, and honor our process.”