Freshman point guard Ajay Mitchell, shown during a basketball game earlier this season, scored 30 points on Saturday to lead UCSB to a 97-90, double-overtime victory at UC Riverside. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk File Photo)

RIVERSIDE — UCSB reached the rock bottom of Big West Conference basketball when it opened the month of February by stumbling to its fourth loss in five league games.

It was enough to get coach Joe Pasternack to draw a mountain on his locker room whiteboard.

“I drew a line of us going up the mountain,” he said, “and I told them, ‘The only thing we’re worried about today is getting better, because we’re just trying to get to the highest seed we can for the conference tournament.’”

Ajay Mitchell took the artwork to heart to become the King of the Hill for Gaucho basketball.

The freshman point guard scored 30 points in Saturday’s 97-90, double-overtime game at UC Riverside to give UCSB its third-straight victory and the sixth in its last seven games.

Mitchell who was coming off a UCSB freshman record of 31 points in Thursday’s overtime win at UC Davis, became the first Gaucho to score at least 30 in back-to-back games since Orlando Johnson turned the trick twice in 2011.

Amadou Sow added 25 points and nine rebounds to help the Gauchos (14-10, 6-5 Big West) keep pace with UC Davis (12-8, 5-4) at sixth place in the league standings. The top six teams will receive a first-round bye in the Big West Tournament.

“We’re playing our best basketball at this time of year, and that’s all you hope to do,” Pasternack said.

UCSB, which will complete its regular season with home games on Tuesday against Cal State Northridge and Thursday against Hawaii, can also still pass fifth-place Riverside (15-10, 8-5). The Gauchos snapped the Highlanders’ three-game winning streak in dramatic fashion.

Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 point guard from Belgium, provided much of the drama. He scored 21 of his 30 during Saturday’s final 7½ minutes of regulation and the two five-minute overtimes. He accounted for 10 of UCSB’s 15 in the second extra period.

He’s averaging 17.0 points per game in Big West play, 11.7 on the year, and 22.1 in the last six games.

“I’ve said this before, but he’s actually such a better human being than a player,” Pasternack said. “I met with him just now and he was just so mellow and poised … He just wanted to make sure his teammates were okay.

“For somebody 19 years of age to have back-to-back, 30-point games in overtime wins and remain so level-headed, that just shows the kind of kid he is. And he was terrific tonight.”

UCSB made four of its first five shots, but six turnovers doomed it to an early 11-9 deficit.

Sow put the Gauchos back on top, however, by scoring inside and then converting a fast-break layup off Josh Pierre-Louis’ steal. A three-pointer by Calvin Wishart off Mitchell’s driving pass capped a 9-0 run that put UCSB ahead 21-14 with 9:05 left in the first half.

Mitchell, who made 11-of-17 shots and both of his three-point attempts, also finished with four assists.

The Highlanders countered with a 10-3 run, drawing even at 24-all on a layup by center Callum McRae.

But Sow scored seven points in the final 3½ minutes of the first half, beginning with a three-point play off Mitchell’s steal and fast-break pass. The senior forward made 10-of-18 shots in the game.

His spinning drive from the top of the key capped UCSB’s first-half scoring, giving it a 35-32 lead. He nearly had a double-double by halftime with 14 points and eight rebounds.

The Gauchos out-shot the Highlanders 56% to 47.8% in the first half while out-rebounding them 13-11. They out-shot them 57.4% to 50% for the game.

Wishart, who had UCSB’s only three-pointer by halftime, added another to start the second half. He finished with 15 points, making 4-of-5 field goals and 5-of-6 free throws. Pierre-Louis made all three of his field goals and 4-of-5 free throws to score 10 points.

Sanni, who returned to the court on Thursday after having missed six games with a sprained ankle, made another three a few minutes later. He then lobbed a pass to Pierre-Louis for an alley-oop dunk to reward him for a steal.

Pasternack needed Sanni to play 27 minutes of Saturday’s 50-minute game after easing him back into action with just seven minutes on Thursday. The junior guard finished with nine points.

“I’m sure my medical staff — my trainer and strength coach — are going to be mad at me,” Pasternack said. “They gave me a limit of minutes, but Ajare kept saying, ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ so we stayed with him.”

The Highlanders surged ahead with an 8-0 run that took just 2½ minutes. Flynn Cameron capped the outburst with a three after Riverside rebounded its own free-throw miss. They out-rebounded the Gauchos 28-13 after the first half and 39-26 for the game.

But Mitchell began asserting himself with less than seven minutes to go. He converted a three-point play off a high-to-low pass from Miles Norris to put UCSB back on top, 59-57.

The lead changed hands six times in the last nine minutes of regulation. But no go-ahead shot was bigger than Mitchell’s first three-point attempt with 1:08 left in regulation, nudging the Gauchos ahead 70-68.

UCSB extended its margin to three points with 51.2 seconds left when Pierre-Louis made 1-of-2 free throws. His drive had turned the tables on Zyon Pullin, fouling him out after the UCR point guard had made 15-of-16 free throws for nearly all of his 19 points.

McRae sent the game into the first overtime, however, with a three-point play with 24.8 seconds on the clock. The Highlanders’ 7-foot-1, 295-pound senior from New Zealand led all players with 32 points and 11 rebounds.

“He’s a monster,” Pasternack said. “He’s really hard to deal with, but we definitely could’ve done a better job on him tonight.”

UCSB never trailed after that, although Riverside got new life from a bizarre end to the first overtime.

Pierre-Louis scored off two drives early in the first extra period. A baseline jumper by Wishart and Mitchell’s double-pump, driving bank shot extended the Gauchos’ margin to 81-75 with 1:30 on the clock.

But the Highlanders got consecutive baskets from McRae and Dominick Pickett. UCSB kept them in the game by making just 1-of-4 foul shots.

The Gauchos, holding a three-point lead with 7.7 seconds left, tried to prevent a game-tying three-pointer by fouling Pickett near mid-court. But the senior guard alertly heaved the ball toward the basket to turn it into a three-shot foul, and he made each of the free throws to tie the game with 2.7 seconds remaining.

The second overtime was nearly all-Mitchell, however. His three runners during the first three minutes combined with Sow’s two free throws to improve UCSB’s lead to 90-86.

The Highlanders got as close as 90-89 on McRae’s basket with 1:42 to go. But when they tried to cut off another drive by Mitchell, he pulled up and sank a three from the top of the key with 47.8 seconds left.

The Gauchos held the Highlanders scoreless the rest of the way while making 4-of-6 foul shots.

Their sizzling 81.2% shooting for the two overtimes (9-for-11) came at the end of a grueling two-game road trip which took them a good length of California.

“What a gutty effort by these student-athletes, overcoming the wear and tear and travel to win on the road at Riverside, one of the top three teams in our league,” Pasternack said. “Our guys really showed their fortitude and toughness to keep grinding.”

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at The opinions expressed are his own.