Ajay Mitchell drives in to score a reverse layup during UCSB's basketball game against UC Irvine on Wednesday. He scored 25 points but no other Gaucho reached double-figure scoring in the 70-59 defeat.
Ajay Mitchell led the UCSB men's basketball to the Big West title and a NCAA Tournament berth. Credit: Jeff Liang / Noozhawk Photo


Ajay Mitchell scores 25 points but his teammates freeze up in the second half

UC Irvine grabbed nearly half of its own misses as well as half of first place at UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday.

The Anteaters overwhelmed the Gauchos’ thin front line in the second half to rally for a 70-59 men’s basketball victory at the Thunderdome.

“I think we ran out of steam,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “That was the difference in the game — rebounding in the second half.

“Not the first half, the second half. That really hurt us.”

The Gauchos (20-5, 11-3 Big West), who gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the second half alone, drop into a first-place tie with Irvine (18-8, 11-3) with six games remaining.

UCSB played without two of its top three post players. Starting center Andre Kelly, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds in a 73-65 win at Irvine on Jan. 16, had to serve a one-game suspension for fighting with UC Davis’ Ty Johnson during last Saturday’s game.

Freshman Koat Keat Tong, the only reserve post player who’s received regular playing time for the Gauchos, was sidelined after injuring his knee on Saturday.

The Anteaters took full advantage by out-rebounding UCSB 24-13 in the second half and 38-26 for the game. They retrieved 13 of their own misses, and out-scored the Gauchos 15-2 in second-chance points and 30-14 in the paint.

UCSB came out flat before it got flattened on the backboards. The Gauchos missed six of their first seven shots, scoring only Jakov Kukic’s put-back.

Pasternack informed the junior forward before the game that he would be making the first start of his collegiate career. Kukic had played in only half of UCSB’s contests this year, averaging just over seven minutes a game.

“I’ve put in my work and I trusted his word,” Kukic said. “He said, ‘Jak, it’s your time.’ I just needed to step up.”

Ajay Mitchell kept UCSB close by scoring all 10 of his team’s points during a span of just over four minutes.

“I approach every game with the same mentality,” he said. “We missed those players who were out, but we’ve got to move on.

“We’ve got a great team. People can step up, like Jakov did.”

UCSB forward Jakov Kukic, getting his first start as a Gaucho scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting in Wednesday’s first-place Big West Conference basketball showdown against UC Irvine. (Jeff Liang / Noozhawk Photo)

Kukic scored off a whirling move and added a 15-foot jumper to get UCSB within 28-25. He scored eight points in the first half on 4-for-5 shooting.

“I thought in the first half our guys played really, really well, Jakov especially,” Pasternack said.  “He’s sacrificed a lot over the last four years, and I thought he was really, really good in the first half.”

But Kukic fouled out after playing just seven minutes in the second half. He didn’t take another shot or grab another rebound.

UCSB took a lead late in the first half, 30-28, on a three-pointer by Miles Norris. He was also fouled while attempting another three with just 2.5 seconds left in the half and made all three foul shots.

But DJ Davis, the Anteaters’ hottest hand and the Big West leader in three-pointers, was inexplicably allowed to catch a long pass just beyond half court. He made a running three-pointer to cut the Gauchos’ lead to 35-33 at halftime.

“DJ was terrific, and I expect that from him in big games and big moments,” UCI coach Russell Turner said. “He has a knack for making shots late in the shot clock or in the half.”

Davis scored 15 of his game-high 25 points in the first half. Mitchell matched him in both halves to lead UCSB with 25 points.

“We didn’t do a really good job on him,” Mitchell said. “He was open a lot of times, especially on rebounds.”

The Anteaters out-shot the Gauchos 46.4% to 42% after holding them to 37% in the second half.

UCSB started the second half as slowly as the first. It missed five of its first six shots and fumbled a turnover which the Anteaters’ Dean Keeler converted into a layup for a 47-38 lead.

Mitchell rallied the Gauchos by assisting a three-point play by Josh Pierre-Louis, scoring a reverse layup off a baseline drive, and making a three to draw the Gauchos within 53-50.

UCSB’s Josh Pierre-Louis drives toward the basket at the Thunderdome during Wednesday’s basketball game against UC Irvine. (Jeff Liang / Noozhawk Photo)

He was the only Gaucho to reach double-figure scoring, making 8-of-14 shots including both of his three-point attempts. His teammates went just 1-of-9 from three.

“We had to have more than just Ajay out there tonight, and we didn’t have that from an offensive standpoint,” Pasternack said. “We passed up some open shots, and I’m not sure why. We were a little hesitant.

“We got the ball where we were supposed to get the ball and didn’t take some shots.”

Irvine’s Dawson Baker didn’t hesitate when UCSB left him open for a pair of threes. He made both to put UCI up 64-55 with 5:36 to go and finished with 14 points.

UCSB missed five straight shots against Irvine’s zone defense — two which didn’t even reach the rim. An unopposed layup by Pierre Crockrell II soon pushed UCI’s lead into double digits at 66-55 with 4:50 left.

The Gauchos’ last gasp came when Mitchell scored a runner and Cole Anderson added a jumper to bring them to within 66-59 with 2:52 remaining.

But the Anteaters kept the ball for the next 95, agonizing seconds while rebounding five consecutive misses. Bent Leuchten put UCSB out of its misery by dunking after the fifth miss for a 68-59 lead with 1:15 to go.

Kelly will be back when UCSB returns to action Saturday with a 5 p.m. game at third-place UC Riverside (17-10, 10-5 Big West). But Tong, who showed up on crutches for Wednesday’s game, figures to be sidelined for much longer.

“We’re still getting information from doctors, trying to figure out how long he’ll be out,” Pasternack said.

Mitchell expects the Gauchos to bounce back quickly, however.

“We saw it after CSUN — we had a great game at Long Beach,” he said. “Here it’s going to be the same deal.

“We lose one game, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve just got to move on and get back to work … Get ready for the next game and be ready to win.”