Josh Pierre-Louis returns from back injury to ignite UCSB’s big finish
LA JOLLA — A homecoming in the home stretch inspired UC Santa Barbara’s Miles Norris to home in for a season-best basketball performance on Saturday.
The former San Diego schoolboy star scored 25 points in an 87-71 victory at UC San Diego which boosted the Gauchos into a three-way tie for first place in the Big West Conference.
“A lot of my family and friends are here,” said Norris, a 6-foot-10 senior from Helix High School. “The team ended up coming down with a win — that’s all I care about.
“It’s good to show for my people, though. It’s always good to come back home.”
UCSB (22-7, 13-5 Big West) won its second straight game after having lost its previous three. The Gauchos, which got an assist when UC Irvine (20-10, 13-5) lost at Hawai’i (21-9, 12-6) on Saturday, joined the Anteaters and idle UC Riverside (20-10, 13-5) atop the league standings.
“I’m so happy for Miles,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “This is a senior and he’s not finished yet.
“I expect him to take off from this game and get ready for Thursday’s game.”
UCSB will conclude its regular season with games Thursday at UC Davis and Saturday at home against Hawai’i in a Senior Night contest that will be televised nationally by ESPNU. Both games will tip off at 6 p.m.
“I’m excited, definitely, and a lot of the older guys here are excited,” Norris said. “We know what we need to do. We’re just trying to end on a good note going into Vegas (for the Big West Tournament).
“We hit a rough patch, but I think we’ve bounced back and are rolling now. I feel really good about it.”
He felt perfect shooting the ball during first half, going 7-for-7 from the floor, 4-for-4 from the three-point line, and 3-for-3 from the foul line while scoring half of the Gauchos’ 40 points. They needed nearly every one of them to stay ahead of the Tritons (10-20, 5-13) by four points.
San Diego, which was coming off a 99-91 upset win at Irvine on Thursday, stayed with UCSB through the first 29 minutes. A three-pointer by Jake Kosakowski reduced the Gauchos’ lead to 58-55 with just 11:20 remaining.
“UC San Diego is a good team,” Pasternack said. “Anybody that can go into Irvine and put up 99 points is very good.”
But a three by Ajay Mitchell ignited a 17-3 run that put the game away. Mitchell scored eight of his 10 points in the second half while also finishing with six assists, four rebounds and two steals.
Josh Pierre-Louis, who missed UCSB’s previous game with a back injury, scored 10 of his 14 points in the final 8:15.
Pasternack called trainer Jackson Smidt the “MVP of the game” for getting Pierre-Louis ready to play.
“We don’t win tonight unless Josh plays, and Josh gutted it out,” he said. “He was unbelievable on defense.
“As of 10 a.m. yesterday, he was not going to play in the game. Jackson gets all the credit. He worked on him morning, noon and night, 24-7, to get him to play.”
Five Gauchos reached double-figure scoring. Andre Kelly recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“They have very good players at every position,” San Diego coach Eric Olen said. “They’re skilled, they take care of the basketball, they’re well-coached … They’re a very good basketball team.”
Calvin Wishart, who has replaced the injured Ajare Sanni in the starting lineup, finished with 15 points, six rebounds and a game-high eight assists.
“That was Calvin’s best game since he’s been here,” Pasternack said of the senior transfer from Georgia Southern. “He was terrific.”
Although the Tritons didn’t let Norris attempt another three-pointer in the second half, he finished 9-for-11 from the floor while also grabbing four rebounds. UCSB out-shot San Diego 59.3% to 47.5% while going 10-for-17 from the three-point line.
Norris made his first two threes before the game reached the three-minute mark. He added a scoop shot off freshman Matija Belic’s driving pass, another three from the top, and a euro-step runner to put the Gauchos ahead 21-16 in the first eight minutes.
“Miles plays with a lot of emotion,” Pasternack said. “It’s really a mental game for him.
“It’s amazing when you’re that locked in. He hit that first shot, and it was on. He went into a zone that was amazing.”
Francis Nwaokorie kept the Tritons in the game, making a pair of threes while scoring 14 points in the first half. His layup off a driving pass from Roddie Anderson tied the score at 23-all.
Anderson finished with a team-high 21 points and five assists while Nwaokorie had a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds. Bryce Pope, the Big West’s second-leading scorer, added 16 points.
“I was proud of the response in the first half,” Olen said. “We fought back and gave ourselves some opportunities.”
But Wishart triggered a 15-4 Gaucho run when two of his three-pointers sandwiched his high-post pass to Andre Kelly for a layup. He was 3-for-6 from three for the game.
“I’m glad everyone stepped up tonight,” Norris said. “With a couple of guys out, everyone has to step up, including me.”
Norris kept the run going with a 17-foot jumper and a corner three off Pierre-Louis’ pass to give UCSB a lead of 38-27.
San Diego drew to within 40-36, however, by closing out the first half with a 9-2 run. The Tritons nearly matched the Gauchos’ shooting in the period, 56.7% to 53.3%.
“Defensively, we contained them in the second half — but we didn’t in the first half,” Pasternack said. “Our defense has really dropped.
“The only way we’re going to move forward and advance is our defense has to get back to where it was at the beginning of conference play.”
The Tritons rallied to within 43-42 on Anderson’s runner. Mitchell answered just 10 seconds later by driving it right back at San Diego for a three-point play. Pierre-Louis added an acrobatic tip-in on UCSB’s next possession, and Norris boosted the lead to 50-42 with a fast-break dunk off Mitchell’s pass.
“I thought our guys really attacked,” Pasternack said.
The shorthanded Gauchos never slowed down despite playing only seven players until the final two minutes.
“We’ve played five games in 11 days — and in those five games, adversity really hit us,” Pasternack said. “We had to recalibrate our team.
“A season is a lifetime. I really believe that. How do you respond when something bad happens?
“It’s all about attitude. That’s our word. That’s what we talk about every day. That’s what we say in our huddles. And our guys really got a jolt of renewed energy … a passion … urgency.”