UCSB’s backcourt trio of Cole Anderson, Josh Pierre-Louis and Ajay Mitchell combined for 54 points and 19 assists
The UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team got a chain reaction of nuclear proportion when its Missing Link returned to the Thunderdome on Sunday.
Point guard Ajay Mitchell, sidelined for the Gauchos’ first two games by an ankle injury, made a triumphant season debut in a 96-72 romp past Le Moyne College.
Mitchell, last year’s Big West Conference Player of the Year, led UCSB (1-2) to its first win with 15 points and six assists in just 18 minutes of playing time.
“Missed being on the court with my guys, so it felt really good,” he said. “I got some minutes in and I was happy about the win.
“There’s still a lot to fix as a team and me just getting back in shape, but I’m good.”
He helped make plenty of his teammates feel good, as well.
Mitchell freed up junior guard Cole Anderson to make 6-of-10 three-point attempts and score a game-high 20 points.
He also helped Josh Pierre-Louis, a senior who had played point in Mitchell’s absence, flirt with the Gauchos’ first triple-double since the days of Brian Shaw with a stat line of 19 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
Sophomore forward Yohan Traore overpowered Le Moyne inside with 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting.
“Tonight, offensively, we played like a fist,” coach Joe Pasternack said.
He met with Sunday’s three starting guards to aid their reconnection. It sparked an electric result: 54 points and 19 assists between them.
“They had to tell each other why they needed each other,” Pasternack said. “The first two games were a great example.
“It’s like, Josh needs Ajay. Guess what? Ajay needs Josh. Ajay needs Cole. The spacing, right?
“And Cole needs both of them.”
A Passing Fancy
UCSB outshot Le Moyne (1-4), a school from Syracuse, N.Y. which is transitioning to NCAA Division 1 status, by a 61.7% to 42.6% margin. Pasternack was most happy about how 26 of the Gauchos’ 37 baskets were assisted.
“This isn’t tennis … This isn’t golf, where you’re just by yourself out there on an island,” he said. “This is very simply, ‘You need each other.’
“And right now, both on offense and defense, that’s what it’s all about.”
Le Moyne, which was missing several front-line players, tried to beat UCSB from outside. It worked for a while.
The Dolphins made their first three three-pointers … but so did UCSB. Anderson’s second bomb triggered a 10-0 run that put the Gauchos ahead 16-9.
UCSB shot 63.3% in the first half. When it missed, Ariel Bland was there to clean things up with a pair of follow dunks. The junior forward’s game-high 11 rebounds helped the Gauchos win the battle of the backboards, 41-20.
The Gauchos had more than doubled the Dolphins’ score, 31-14, by the time Anderson made the fifth of his first six three-point attempts.
But Le Moyne rallied with a hot hand of its own. The Dolphins made five threes in the final 8:04 of the first half — two each by Isaiah Salter and Nate McClure — to get as close as 50-42.
Pierre-Louis had seven assists in the first half, but it was his two foul shots that got the lead back to 10 at the break.
He continued to showcase his improved shooting touch, making 7-of-11 attempts overall, 3-of-5 from three, and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line.
For the season, Pierre-Louis is shooting 62.5% overall, 60% from three and 75% from the foul line. He shares the team scoring lead with Traore at 17.3 points per game, with Anderson close behind at 16.7.
“It’s just more about the practice me and coach and the guys put in this summer and the spring, right after the March Madness tournament,” Pierre-Louis said. “This is just the result of me shooting for countless hours.
“I just have more confidence now, more than anything.”
Le Moyne stayed close in the first half by shooting 51.7% overall and even better from three at 56.3% (9-for-16).
The Dolphins hit a wall in the second half, however, by making just 1-of-11 threes.
Ocypher Owens, their scoring leader with 16 points, accounted for 12 of his team’s 30 in the second half.
Pasternack, however, was disappointed with some of his team’s defensive breakdowns.
“We’re playing right now like five individuals,” he said. “We’re getting driven and we’re getting out-rebounded on different situations.”
Turnovers continued to plague UCSB, as well. The Gauchos committed 17 of them for the third-straight game.
“If we don’t fix that, it’s going to be a tough road ahead because that’s giving up transition baskets,” he said. “We’ll go to the film session and see what it was tonight.
“The game before it was something different.”
The Ol’ College Traore
Traore asserted himself to start the second half by outscoring Le Moyne 6-2 in the first 2 ½ minutes alone. He started it off with a baseline jumper, but then he simply powered through his defender on the next trip downcourt.
“Coming here, he was more of a finesse player, shooting threes,” Pasternack said of his 6-foot-10 sophomore transfer from Auburn. “I’ve talked to him over and over again that, ‘We’re not fading away shooting … You are attacking and being aggressive.’
“When he does that, he’s going to be hard to stop.”
Mitchell’s pin-point passing picked Le Moyne apart during all 18 of his minutes.
He capped his evening with a two-minute exhibition of three consecutive assists: a perfectly timed, fast-break lob to Matija Belic; an inbounds lob to Pierre-Louis for a dunk, and then a slick pass to Pierre-Louis for a top-of-the-key three.
Mitchell admitted afterward that UCSB’s season-opening losses to Portland State and Texas-El Paso were the two toughest games he’s ever had to watch.
“It was frustrating, for sure,” he said. “But I think we’ve learned a lot from those games.
“I’m ready to go. The team is ready to go. We’ve just got to get better every day.”