The approach of season’s end stirred another season high from UCSB basketball star Amadou Sow.
The 6-foot-9 senior opened the final homestand of his collegiate career by scoring a season-best 26 points to lead the streaking Gauchos to a 70-61 victory over Cal State Northridge at the Thunderdome on Tuesday.
“It’s everything, with my four years here coming to an end,” he said.
Sow, who was coming off a 25-point performance in Saturday’s victory at UC Riverside, will play his final game at the Thunderdome on Thursday at 7 p.m. against third-place Hawaii. Students will receive free t-shirts in the Gauchos’ annual “White-Out Game” and the team’s five graduating seniors will be honored before tipoff.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotion, but we’re going to compete and try to get a win,” he said. “We’re playing a great team. We’ve got to show up and compete.
“We’re trying to get it all together as a team in these last few games. It’s going to be exciting.”
The victory was UCSB’s fourth in a row and seventh in the last eight games. The Gauchos (15-10, 7-5 Big West Conference), who moved into sole possession of sixth place in the league race, can still finish anywhere between third and seventh with the result in Thursday’s regular-season finale.
“We’re in March now,” Sow said. “We’re playing our best basketball and we need to keep that going, going into the tournament.”
The top six teams will get a first-round bye in the Big West Tournament, which begins Tuesday at the new Dollar Loan Center in Las Vegas.
CSUN (7-21, 3-12), which suffered its fifth-straight loss, kept Tuesday’s outcome in doubt until the final minute. Pasternack had warned his Gauchos about an upset, noting the 78-70 victory that an 8-21 Nebraska team had scored at 23rd-ranked Ohio State earlier Tuesday.
“That’s college basketball,” he said. “If you’re not mentally ready to compete, anybody can beat anybody in college basketball anywhere. There’s so much parity.
“Every single game is a battle. I’m really proud of our guys for competing and playing hard tonight.”
The Gauchos out-shot the Matadors 54.2% to 50% and out-rebounded them 32-24.
Sow made 12-of-15 shots, 2-of-3 free throws, and grabbed seven rebounds while scoring 16 of his 26 points in the first half. Freshman point guard Ajay Mitchell, who put together games of 31 and 30 points last week, scored 12 of his 17 during Tuesday’s second half.
Mitchell has averaged 20 points, shot 59.4% overall, 41.2% from three, and 75% from the foul line during UCSB’s surge in the last eight games. He’s improved his scoring averages to 16.2 points in Big West play and 12.0 overall.
“Amadou had a monster first half,” Pasternack said. “Ajay had a monster second half.”
Sow scored UCSB’s first 10 points. His five baskets were assisted by three different teammates. Ajare Sanni found him at the end of back-to-back fast breaks to put the Gauchos ahead 10-7.
“He’s dominant,” Pasternack said. “He’s the best big guy in our league. It’s not even close.
“I think our guys are finding him better now, and that’s good for us. We’ve got to keep that going.”
Calvin Wishart led UCSB in assists with five while Miles Norris had a team-high eight rebounds.
UCSB was shooting 64.3% (9-for-14) by the time Cole Anderson hit a three and Mitchell scored a runner. Sow’s spinning hook shot and a free throw by Mitchell gave the Gauchos their biggest lead of the first half at 20-11.
“I wouldn’t say I’m at my best, but the team is doing really well right now,” said Sow, who increased his team-best scoring average to 15.9 points per game. “Guys are finding me in the open court, in transition, and in the half-court offense. Guys are finding me. Kudos to them.”
They did fumble away much of their lead, however, by committing four of their seven first-half turnovers in the next 2½ minutes. The Gauchos also missed four straight free throws.
CSUN got as close as four points, 24-20, on a jumper by Elijah Hardy. He led the Matadors with 15 points and four assists.
Sow’s finger-roll, a three by Sanni, and a 10-foot bank shot by Sékou Touré helped the Gauchos boost the margin to 31-25 by halftime.
UCSB out-shot the Matadors 56.5% to 42.3% in the first half. Seven turnovers and six missed foul shots, however, kept it from building a bigger lead.
CSUN got within 35-32 early in the second half on a three-pointer by Hardy. But that only lit a fire under Mitchell. The 6-foot-4 point guard answered with a three of his own just 29 seconds later to trigger 12-2 run.
“Ajay is playing his best basketball now at a time when we need him,” Sow said. “It’s scary for the rest of the conference to see. Going to the tournament, guys are going to really show up.”
Sow scored half of those 12 points, which included a put-back. Josh Pierre-Louis scrapped for a three-point play off another offensive rebound.
“Josh got two really quick fouls, and that hurt us in the first half,” Pasternack said. “But I thought he had a nice second half and got four rebounds.
“That’s what he has to do. He has to get rebounds for us to be successful.”
Atin Wright kept CSUN in the game by scoring all 11 of his points in the final 12 minutes. He converted a three-point play, hit a three-point shot, and added a jumper to reduce UCSB’s lead of 13 points to seven, 51-44.
Sanni, playing only his third game since returning from ankle injury, got the margin back to 13 with a pair of free throws and a three.
“Ajare came off the bench and did a nice job,” Pasternack said. “He’s just getting his feet wet, getting better and better.”
The Matadors rallied to within six points four different times in the final three minutes. Mitchell kept them at bay with a three-point play, rattling in a jumper while getting knocked to the ground with 56.1 seconds to go.
“Nothing rattles him,” Pasternack said. “I’m really, really proud of how he performed tonight, especially in the second half.
“Free-throw shooting has been kind of an Achilles heel for us. He missed one in the first half but he really came to play in the second half and knocked down 3-of-3 when it mattered.”
UCSB sank its last nine foul shots after having made just 5-of-11. Mitchell and Norris hit two apiece in the final 39 seconds to complete the victory.
“Now we have 46 hours to prepare for Hawaii,” Pasternack said. “They’re a great team. They’re at the top of our league. They won at Long Beach State. They beat Irvine. They beat Fullerton. So they’ve beaten everybody at the top of our league.
“We’ve faced them only one time and had a tough one there. But they’re as good as there is in our conference. We have a great challenge ahead of us.”