UC Santa Barbara filled plenty of Gaucho plates during a Thanksgiving Eve basketball feast on Wednesday.
UCSB dished out a season-high 23 assists to set the table for six double-digit scorers in an 89-71 victory which clinched the championship of its own Santa Barbara Beach Classic.
The Gauchos had 43 assists in their two tournament wins after getting only three in last week’s loss at Northern Arizona.
“I’m really proud of how unselfish our team was, sharing the basketball, while coming off that Northern Arizona game,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “We have a lot of really good players, and tonight was a great example of that.
“When we share the ball, we’re a really good team. And when we don’t, it’s really tough.”
Seven Gauchos had at least nine points. Sophomore point guard Ajay Mitchell was named tournament most valuable player after scoring a team-high 17 for the second straight game. He shot a combined 11-for-13 in the victories over Hampton University and North Alabama.
He was most happy, however, with his seven assists on Wednesday. He finished with a tournament total of 15 and just two turnovers.
“Almost every guy on our team is an option,” Mitchell said, “so every time I step on the court, I know where they’re going to be. I trust them every time.”
UCSB (4-1) shot a season-high 61.1% overall and was even better from the three-point line (13-for-21 for 61.9%). North Alabama (4-2) cooled off after a 53.6% first half, finishing at 48.3% for the game. The Lions, who came into the game shooting 40.7% from three, made just 2-of-9 during Wednesday’s second half.
“The defense was better in the second half, but we have to get it fixed,” Pasternack said. “For us to continue to be successful, we have to take pride in guarding the ball and defending and rebounding every single possession.”
Ajare Sanni, who missed the season opener with a bone bruise in his ankle, joined Mitchell on the all-tournament team after scoring 11 of his 14 points in the second half. He made 4-of-7 three-point attempts — the last two of which helped the Gauchos pull away in a game they led just 53-52 with less than 12½ minutes remaining.
Sanni, a graduate student, had made just 1-of-6 threes entering Wednesday’s game.
“I just had to wait for my opportunity … That was tonight, and I got rolling,” Sanni said. “Even when I wasn’t doing well and playing the minutes I wanted to in the first few games, I got into the gym to get back my shot.”
His next stop will be Pasternack’s place for Thanksgiving.
“We’ve got a good meal waiting for us,” Sanni said, “so we’ll get our grub.”
Pasternack felt like scrapping the whole affair after his team dug an 8-to-0 hole with five straight misses and a turnover.
“In those first four minutes, I texted my wife, ‘Cancel it!’” he said with a laugh.
The Gauchos still trailed 10-2 before Mitchell fed Miles Norris with a fast-break basket and added a baseline jumper in back-to-back possessions.
A three by Daniel Ortiz and a running hook by Daniel Braster pushed the Lions’ lead back up to 19-11.
But Cole Anderson came into the game to give UCSB a three-point shot in the arm. He fired in four straight, long-range missiles in a span of just 4½ minutes. His final three gave the Gauchos their first lead, 23-22, with 8:29 left in the first half. The sophomore guard missed his only other shot attempt and finished with 12 points.
“It’s huge to have a weapon like Cole,” Pasternack said. “He’s an elite, elite shooter. It’s our job to get him more shots.”
Norris added two more threes to cap an 18-4 run, improving UCSB’s margin to 32-26. He finished with 10 points and six rebounds while front-court mate Andre Kelly scored 12 points and had a team-high seven rebounds.
Kelly’s hook shot and a pair of driving baskets by Mitchell — the latter assisted by Josh Pierre-Louis — boosted the Gauchos’ lead to 38-33. Pierre-Louis finished with seven assists and nine points while Calvin Wishart added three assists and 10 points.
UCSB had 20 assists in Monday’s game against Hampton University and another 23 on Wednesday after getting just three at Northern Arizona.
“We weren’t a together team,” Pasternack said of the 63-54 defeat in Flagstaff. “I thought in our practice Sunday — for us, practice is everything — we refocused on being a better team and not on ourselves.”
Sanni beat the halftime buzzer with a three off another assist by Pierre-Louis, sending UCSB to the locker room with a 41-37 lead.
The Gauchos out-shot the Lions in the first half, 64% to 53.6% overall and 77.8% (7-for-9) to 50% from three. Their poor free-throw shooting (2-for-7), however, kept North Alabama in the game. The Lions also out-rebounded UCSB 13-12 in the first half.
The Gauchos turned that around in the final 20 minutes, out-rebounding North Alabama 22-10 (34-23 for the game).
“It’s an emphasis every single day, winning the rebounding war,” Pasternack said. “I think we’re one of the top defensive rebounding teams in the country. They only had five offensive rebounds, and so that’s something that’s really, really important to our team.”
UCSB continued to shoot well from distance in the second half. Pierre-Louis and Sanni both hit threes in the first three minutes. The Gauchos had made just 21-of-72 (29.2%) coming into the game.
“It was just going to take a breakout game like tonight, hitting 13 threes,” Pasternack said. “We’re a good shooting team.”
The Gauchos worked the ball inside for two-pointers by Kelly, Jakov Kukic and Norris, whose dunk put them ahead 53-47.
The Lions rallied to within 53-52 on Jacari Lane’s five consecutive points. But a dunk by Kelly off Wishart’s pass, and back-to-back threes by Sanni gave UCSB some breathing room at 61-54.
A pair of baskets by Pierre-Louis, sandwiching Mitchell’s three-point play off a hard drive, increased the Gauchos’ margin to double-digits. Pierre-Louis then assisted a three-point play by Wishart and a hook shot by Kelly for a 73-60 lead with 5:53 to go.
North Alabama never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
Damian Forrest led the Lions with 15 points and eight rebounds. Oritz, who came into the game averaging 19 points a game, was held to three during Wednesday’s second half and finished with 13 —six below his average
“He had 20 points in the first half (against Hampton) last night,” Pasternack said. “He got away from us a little bit in the first half tonight, but I thought we did a really good job on him.
“We kept moving guys onto him. He’s a hard guard to guard, but I thought in the second half we ended up defending a lot better.”
The Gauchos will return to the road for their next game at Pittsburgh to play Duquesne on Tuesday at 4 p.m. PST.