After nearly running the table the last month, several UCSB basketball players jumped atop the one that had been set up along press row at the Thunderdome Thursday night.
Those Gauchos took their last leap to celebrate a Senior Night to remember with a packed and raucous student section after a 67-60, comeback victory over Hawai’i.
“They came to support the seniors, and that shows a lot about the campus and the university, to have fans like this,” junior Josh Pierre-Louis said of the post-game revelry. “The students care about each other and care about athletics. It’s a big deal to have that at the Thunderdome every game … It’s an energy booster.
“A thank-you to the crowd and the fans. We love them.”
Pierre-Louis was one of three Gauchos to step up with a big finish in Thursday’s regular-season finale. He scored 13 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to help UCSB overcome an eight-point deficit and win its fifth straight game and eighth in the last nine contests.
Forward Amadou Sow, who is expected to be named to the All-Big West Conference team for the fourth time on Monday, scored 12 of his 14 points during the game’s final 11 minutes. Miles Norris, another senior who played his final game at the Thunderdome, got 10 of his 12 in the second half.
Sow lifted coach Joe Pasternack in the air with a bear hug after coming out of the game to a standing ovation with 10 seconds remaining.
“For our seniors, it’s a very emotional night,” Pasternack said. “Those guys have been with us for four years. They’ve experienced some of the best success in the history of this program over the last four years.
“We had a big reason to be emotional as coaches and as players.”
The Gauchos (16-10, 8-5 Big West Conference) must now await Saturday’s results to learn their seeding for next week’s league tournament. Their victory and UC Davis’ 68-65 defeat at Long Beach State assured them of no less than the No. 6 seed. The top six teams receive a first-round bye in the event, which begins Tuesday at the new Dollar Loan Center in Las Vegas.
UCSB, which will open tournament play on Thursday, will get no lower than the No. 5 seed if top-seeded Long Beach (17-11, 11-3) beats UC Riverside (16-10, 9-5) on its Senior Day Saturday. The Gauchos could climb as high as the No. 3 seed with a couple of upsets: Cal State Northridge over Hawai’i (15-10, 9-5) and Cal State Bakersfield over UC Irvine (14-9, 8-5).
Pierre-Louis just wants to keep playing as long as possible.
“Yeah, we won four games in the last eight days, and yeah, we’re on a good run right now,” he said. “But we’ve got three games at the tournament that we’ve got to lock down before we can mark down a bid to March Madness.
“We’re just worried about the next game, and getting our bodies some rest tonight … This job isn’t finished. I’m not flabbergasted about this or anything. It’s just on to the next game.”
The Gauchos, whose field-goal percentage of .495 ranks fourth in the nation, had to make 25-of-37 shots inside the three-point arc (67.6%) to survive a 1-of-12 night from beyond it. They out-shot Hawai’i 53.1% to 50% overall and out-rebounded them 26-23. They also forced the Rainbow Warriors into 17 turnovers.
“We had four home games taken from us and five overall,” Pasternack said, referring to COVID-related cancelations. “We only played four home games total (in Big West play).
“But in this business, there are no excuses. It’s just control what you can control. For us, in the last 16 games, we’re 14-2 when we out-rebound our opponents. That’s what we can control.”
UCSB capitalized on Hawai’i’s miscues from the start. The Warriors committed six turnovers in the first seven minutes alone, leading to 11 straight Gaucho points. Ajare Sanni assisted a fast-break dunk by Robinson Idehen and then sank a three-pointer off Pierre-Louis’ driving pass for an 11-2 lead. Idehen finished with eight points in his final home game.
But UCSB missed its other seven three-point attempts in the first half. Hawai’i, on the other hand, caught fire from outside. A three by Jerome Desrosiers ignited a 24-7 run. He finished with 15 points.
A driving three-point play by Ajay Mitchell and a jumper by Norris kept the Gauchos ahead at 18-11. But Hawai’i put together another run of 15 straight points, beginning with Kamaka Hepa’s back-to-back threes, to take a 26-18 lead. He led all scorers with 19 points, making 7-of-11 shots including 5-of-9 threes, and grabbed seven rebounds.
“Kamaka is a great player,” Pierre-Louis said. “He’s 6-11 and he can shoot the ball from the wing and put the ball on the floor. He’s definitely a tough opponent at that size, so I give it all to Kamaka and the guys who were getting the ball to him in open spots.”
Mitchell’s runner ended UCSB’s six-minute scoring drought and started a 7-0 run.
Sow, the Gauchos’ leading scorer on the season with a 15.8-point average, hadn’t taken a shot in the first 17 minutes. His first attempt only came when he put back a missed three by Norris. UCSB still trailed at halftime, 28-25.
But Norris got his senior moments rolling during the first minute of the second half. He drove hard to bank in a 7-footer. He added a step-back jumper and a driving hook shot in the next two minutes. He was 0-for-5 from three, extending a drought that has him 0-for-12 in the last four games. He made 6-of-7 from two, however, and shared the team rebounding lead with Sow by grabbing seven missed shots.
“Miles plays off of emotion,” Pasternack said. “He was telling me, ‘Give me the ball.’ When he says that, man, I feel really excited and good because he’s ready to go.
“But what I’m most proud of Miles about is while his three hasn’t been falling for the last four games, he had seven rebounds tonight and eight two nights ago. My whole goal for him is to be a complete basketball player, not just a 6-foot-10, two-guard, three-point shooter.”
Pierre-Louis scored off three hard drives in the first four minutes of the second half. He converted the second one off his own steal. Another theft by Norris led to a three-point play for Pierre-Louis that reduced the Gauchos’ deficit to 41-40.
Pierre-Louis countered his five turnovers by making 5-of-10 field goals and 6-of-7 free throws.
“Sometimes I hold my breath when he’s attacking but, man, what a spectacular second half he had,” Pasternack said. “And, more importantly, to his credit every day, he hits 6-of-7 free throws, and those were big throws.
“That’s his hard work. Every single day, he’s shooting 100 free throws every day after practice or before practice.”
Sow’s senior moments began with a hook shot with 10:56 remaining. It touched off a 10-2 run that put UCSB ahead for good. He tipped in his own miss and added a turnaround hook shot from the right baseline to give the Gauchos a 50-46 lead.
“They had a great game plan in the first half,” Pasternack said of the Warriors. “They tried to take Ajay out — they trapped his ball screens, and we just couldn’t get Amadou the ball.
“So we went to a different mode in the second half, and Amadou was a monster down low in the second half. He hit 5-of-6 shots in the second half and he was terrific. Credit to our team for getting him the ball deep and taking advantage of it.”
Norris got the margin up to five points, 54-49, when he fed Sow for a layup from the high post with 5:27 remaining.
The Warriors tried to keep up with three-pointers. Hepa hit two more within a 3½-minute span to get them within 58-57 with 2:25 left. Jovon McClanahan added a pair of foul shots to the spree after his drive fouled out Mitchell.
But Sanni found Norris flashing along the left baseline for a dunk with 2:06 to go. Pierre-Louis added another scoring drive just 31 seconds later to boost UCSB’s margin to 62-57.
Norris’ tip-in with 24 seconds left sealed the victory. Sow then put an exclamation point on the victory by swatting McClanahan’s shot and running it down in the corner. He swished the resulting two free throws, and the party in the student section was soon to follow.