UCSB point guard Ajay Mitchell was harassed by a trapping defense during the Gauchos' 74-56 defeat to Baylor in their South Regional opener of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
UCSB point guard Ajay Mitchell was harassed by a trapping defense during the Gauchos' 74-56 defeat to Baylor in their South Regional opener of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Credit: Marc Piscotty Photo


UCSB cools off in the second half after shooting 61.5% to take a 36-35 lead over 10th-ranked Bears

DENVER — UC Santa Barbara felt the Rocky Mountain high of leading 10th-ranked Baylor through the first half of Friday’s NCAA Basketball South Regional opener.

And then the mile-high altitude kicked in.

The Gauchos, the region’s No. 14 seed, scored just four points during the last nine minutes while faltering to the third-seeded Bears, 74-56, at Ball Arena.

“We had a great first half,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said of his team’s 36-35 lead. “We ran out of steam in the second half.”

The loss ends the winningest season ever for the Gauchos (27-8), who were playing in their second NCAA Tournament in the last three years.

Baylor (23-10), the 2021 NCAA champion, will advance to Sunday’s second round against No. 6 Creighton, which held off No. 11 North Carolina State 72-63 on Friday.

“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “Credit to Santa Barbara in the first half for running great offense, hitting shots.

UCSB’s Calvin Wishart, left, and Baylor’s Adam Flagler dive for a loose ball during Friday’s NCAA South Regional men’s basketball game in Denver. (Marc Piscotty Photo)

“And then credit to our guys in the second half for making some adjustments and really dialing in defensively.”

While UCSB felt oxygen-deprived, Baylor felt the rapture of the deep. Drew took the 5,280-foot altitude into account when he used 10 players during the first half alone.

He also took the advice of reserve forward Caleb Lohner, a transfer from BYU.

“I told him we should be drinking 10 to 12 water bottles,” Lohner said.

Lohner took advantage of the extra playing time by scoring eight of his season-high 13 points during the first half.

Baylor, one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams, drained 6-of-15 of the bonus shots and shot 53.8% overall when UCSB’s defense wore down during the second half. The Gauchos made just 2-of-10 threes in the final 20 minutes and 30.4% of their total attempts after shooting 61.5% in the first half.

“They don’t play as many as us,” Drew pointed out. “I think we were able to wear them down a little bit.”

Senior Adam Flagler, a first-team All-Big 12 point guard, led the Bears with 3-of-5 threes, 18 points, and five assists. But he admittedly needed help in holding Ajay Mitchell, his UCSB counterpart, to 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting and four assists.

“He’s definitely a high-level guard,” Flagler said. “For him to be a sophomore is very surprising, the things he’s able to do out there.

“It was a collective effort at the end of the day. We were flying around, giving him different coverages and making it tough on him. I’m just thankful my teammates were just honing in and locking down.”

UCSB’s Evans Kipruto throws down a dunk during the first half of Friday’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament opener. (Marc Piscotty Photo)

Calvin Wishart got UCSB off to a good start by scoring both a three-pointer and a driving finger-roll in the first five minutes. He also fed a fast-break dunk by Evans Kipruto to put the Gauchos ahead 9-8.

Lohner gave Baylor a lift off the bench, scoring three straight baskets in a span of just 86 seconds. He made all five of his shots in the game which included a three and also grabbed five rebounds.

“Our bench really did a good job, especially in altitude,” Drew said. “Having a deep bench helps in an early morning game.”

A three by Flagler capped an 11-2 run that put the Bears ahead 21-13.

Josh Pierre-Louis answered him with a three just 25 seconds later. Mitchell followed with a driving, pocket pass which Kipruto dunked for a three-point play. Cole Anderson capped the 13-1 run with a pair of jump shots that put UCSB ahead 26-22.

“We got the ball moving and popping,” Pasternack said.

Baylor see-sawed back ahead, 29-26, on Dale Bonner’s three. He did need to make a quick wardrobe change after checking into the game, noticing that the shirt under his jersey was inside-out.

“I told him it was a great opportunity to show his muscles to the nation,” Drew said with a laugh. “Maybe he’s a genius for that.”

The Gauchos flexed their own, however, by outscoring the Bears 10-6 for the rest of the first half.

Mitchell and Miles Norris, who average 30 points a game between them, came alive after having scored just three points combined in the first 16 minutes. They both made a pair of baskets in the last four minutes to give them a halftime lead of 36-35.

UCSB’s Miles Norris (5) tips away a lob pass intended for Baylor’s Jalen Bridges during Friday’s NCAA South Regional men’s basketball tournament game in Denver. (Marc Piscotty Photo)

Norris, who scored 10 of his team-high 15 points during the second half, was happy to see UCSB’s wealth spread out during the first half. Seven Gauchos scored between four and six points during the period.

“I love seeing my teammates play well, especially on the biggest stage,” he said. “I’m happy for all those guys, especially the young guys who were having a first-time experience.”

UCSB outshot the Bears 61.5% to 53.8% in the first half while also out-rebounding them 12-10. Andre Kelly got four of his team-high seven rebounds in the first 20 minutes.

Mitchell got the Gaucho offense off to another good start in the second half. He drove and passed to Norris in the corner for a three. He finished the next drive himself to give UCSB its last lead of 41-39.

But Baylor quickly clamped down, forcing seven of the Gauchos’ 14 turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second half. UCSB also made just 1-of-5 shots while get outscored 15-4.

“They picked up their pressure, and it really bothered us,” Pasternack said.

“I felt like we were together and connected and flying around for one another,” Flagler said. “And we know in this tournament … defense wins games.”

Mitchell scored UCSB’s only four points in that six-minute span. He was forced to make a straight-line drive from just inside the mid-court line to score on one possession and he sank two free throws after getting fouled on another.

“They started trapping me on ball screens,” Mitchell said. “We knew they were going to do it before the game, so our game plan was to move the ball and find open men.

“They did a good job on defense, especially in the second half when we only scored 20.”

 Norris keyed the Gauchos’ last rally with another corner three off another kickout pass from Mitchell and a reverse dunk off Kelly’s pass from the high post.

UCSB’s Josh Pierre-Louis (1) and Andre Kelly apply pressure on Baylor point guard Adam Flagler during Friday’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament opener in Denver’s Ball Arena. (Marc Piscotty Photo)

A free throw by Mitchell got UCSB within 59-52 with 9:11 to go.

And then the Gauchos hit a wall.

“We were stagnant — didn’t have enough movement to attack their pressure,” Pasternack said. “We’re top 10 in the country in field goal percentage, but the ball stopped moving … and I have to call better plays. That’s on me.”

The Gauchos made just 1-of-11 shots in the next nine minutes.

“They were short on shots,” Drew observed.

UCSB’s lone basket during its nine-minute drought came off one of its toughest plays: Norris leaped high for an overthrown lob and redirected it into the basket with his fingertips.

Baylor, meanwhile, smelled blood in the water. Guard LJ Cryer warmed up to score 11 of his 15 points in the second half. A three by Flagler, meanwhile, triggered a seven-minute run of 15-2.

He was taking no chances after last year’s first-round exit from March Madness.

“It definitely put a bad taste in my mouth, losing last year,” Flagler said. “It’s a new opportunity, and we have a group of guys that are hungry and excited. We can’t wait to keep it going.”

UCSB’s fans cheer on the Gauchos during Friday’s NCAA South Regional men’s basketball tournament opener against Baylor. (Marc Piscotty Photo)