Senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin leads UCSB into its Big West Conference men’s basketball opener at UC Irvine.
Senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin leads UCSB into its Big West Conference men’s basketball opener at UC Irvine. (Noozhawk file photo)

JaQuori McLaughlin with 1.6 seconds left and the game tied …. UC Santa Barbara vs. Cal Poly in the famous Thunderdome, after nearly falling backwards …he does this! Watch! @UCSBbasketball

— John Palminteri (@JohnPalminteri) March 8, 2020

JaQuori McLaughlin’s jumper in the middle of the key as the buzzer sounded hit the front of the rim, the backboard and then dropped through the hoop, giving UC Santa Barbara a thrilling 69-67 win over visiting Cal Poly on Saturday night in the Big West regular-season finale at the Thunderdome.

With the win, the Gauchos (21-10 overall, 10-6 Big West) secured the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference Tournament and will play the No. 6 seed UC Riverside on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at Honda Center in Anaheim.

The Mustangs (7-23, 4-12) finish in ninth-place and will not compete in the league tournament. 

“It’s always great to end the regular season at home with a win,” said head coach Joe Pasternack. “But to do it the way we did tonight, with JaQuori making that shot. That makes it special for everyone.” 

UCSB struggled mightily through the first half, trailing 35-26 at the break. In the first 20 minutes, the Gauchos made just 11-of-34 field goal attempts overall (32.4%) and 2-for-13 from three-point range (15.4%). Meanwhile, Cal Poly was sizzling, going 14-for-26 overall, 53.8%, and 5-for-11 from outside the arc, 45.5%. 

At one point in the first half, Brandon Cyrus was a perfect 3-for-3 from the field but the rest of the team was 0-for-11. Cyrus finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. The 13 points was his highest total of the season. 

In the second half, UCSB pulled to 38-35, but an 18-8 run by Cal Poly pushed the lead to 56-43 on three free throws by Malek Harwell with 11:08 remaining in the game.

Every time it seemed like Santa Barbara would get back into the game, it wasn’t to be. In one sequence, the Gauchos forced a missed shot by Junior Ballard, but missed a layup on the other end of the floor. Cal Poly responded with a three-pointer by Mark Crowe. The five-point swing made the score 63-54 with 7:23 to play instead of 60-56.

UCSB bounced back from Crowe’s three-pointer with a three-pointer by McLaughlin, a defensive stop and a hook shot by Amadou Sow with 6:21 remaining to make it 63-59. But a layup by Ballard extended it back to 65-59. 

McLaughlin and Tuuka Jaakkola traded baskets and it was 67-61, Mustangs. Jaakkola fouled out with 3:35 left, sending Sow to the line where he made the first but missed the second. After a defensive stop, Sow scored on a hook shot in the paint to carve the lead to 67-64 with 2:42 to play. 

Following another stop on the defensive end, Cyrus missed a short jumper, but Sow rebounded and was fouled. He missed the first free throw, but made the second to cut the deficit to 67-65 at the 1:46 mark.

The Gauchos then harassed Job Alexander into a turnover that resulted in a fast break layup by Sékou Touré, tying the score at 67 with 1:18 left. Touré was fouled but missed the free throw and it was rebounded by Cal Poly. 

A missed three-pointer by Jamal Smith was rebounded by Cyrus with 47 seconds to play. After a timeout UCSB setup a play, but when the ball went to Matt Freeman above the ke it was swiped out of his hand. The Mustangs got the ball to Jamal Smith who was fouled from behind by Devearl Ramsey. Smith went to the line to shoot 1-plus-1. 

He missed the front end and McLaughlin rebounded. The Gauchos worked the ball around, getting it to McLaughlin near the top of the key. He drove the lane, stopped, pivoted and, as time ran out, hit the game-winner. 

“I actually stumbled a little,” McLaughlin said. “When we fell behind by 13 in the second half, we kept coming together as a team during timeouts. We understand that the game is 40 minutes and it’s a process.” 

The game-winning shot was the first in McLaughlin’s collegiate career. It gave UCSB a school record-tying 13th home win. 

“The crowd was great tonight,” McLaughlin said. “This is what it’s all about.”