One city, two college basketball teams on winning sprees — something will have to give tonight (Thursday, January 2) when Westmont travels across town to play UCSB at the Thunderdome. Westmont’s Warriors went into the Christmas break with a 12-0 record, while the Gauchos (10-4) had won eight of their last nine games.
The Gauchos historically have played the role of Goliath in the series, boasting a 43-5 record against the Warriors, according to the UCSB record book. Westmont sprung an upset in 1998 when Corey Blick, fouled on a desperation three-point attempt with a second remaining, sank all three free throws to sink the Gauchos, 54-53. Their last meeting in 2011 produced a more typical result, UCSB winning, 82-61.
The Gauchos’ stature as an NCAA Division I team would seemingly make them a 20-point favorite over the NAIA Warriors. Coach Joe Pasternack would not want them to read that. After the Gauchos looked at the scoreboard showing they had a 22-point lead over Rice in the second half of their November game, Rice came back and won, 82-81.
“That’s a game that’s going to haunt us to our graves,” UCSB forward Matt Freeman said.
To keep up their intensity since then, the Gauchos have turned to JaQuori McLaughlin. The 6’4” junior guard, a transfer from Oregon State, has taken a leadership role during his second year in the program.
With sharpshooter Max Heidegger sidelined for the past month because of concussion issues, McLaughlin picked up the scoring slack in the backcourt. He tallied a career-high 24 points in a 77-68 victory over Southern University. In the last game before Christmas, he shared the ball with his teammates, accruing eight assists in a 68-50 win over Merrimack. The 6’10” Freeman was a beneficiary, scoring 21 points.
“Tonight I felt like other guys had wide-open shots,” said McLaughlin, who also excels at the defensive end. “It keeps our chemistry good.” He said he strives to live by Pasternack’s oft-repeated mantra: “Honor the process.” In the player’s words, “Process is waking up every day, no matter what happened the day before, good or bad, and doing what you need to do to get better.”
McLaughlin’s counterpart on the Westmont side is Cade Roth, a 6’5” sophomore. He is the only returning starter on a team that has displayed remarkable togetherness despite a bevy of new faces. “I’ve never seen a group of guys who want to win a game more and avoid dips,” Roth said after the Warriors defeated the University of Antelope Valley, 80-73.
It was Roth’s second game back after recovering from an appendectomy that kept him out of three contests. “As soon as I could, I was going to be out there,” he said. One of five Warriors who had a double-figure scoring average, Roth scored just six points in the game but led the team with nine rebounds and five assists. His put-back in the final two minutes stemmed an Antelope Valley surge.
“He can bring the ball up, pass it really well, rebound, and score,” Westmont coach John Moore said. “He’s a player that Steve Lavin [Moore’s brother-in-law] would call a Swiss Army Knife.”
Moore, in his 27th year at Westmont, attributed the Warriors’ best start since the 1983-’84 season to the winning attitude of the players he’s brought in. “Look deeply into who they are,” he said. “They come from big-time winning programs. Abram [Carrasco, a junior guard] knows how to win games; he’s the all-time leading scorer in the history of Pima College. Justin [Bessard] knows how to win.”
Bessard, a 6’6” senior transfer from Bellevue (Nebraska), will try to hold his own in the paint against UCSB’s 6’9” Amadou Sow, Freeman and another 6’10” post player, Robinson Idehen. Bessard scored 22 points against Antelope Valley. “He made some twisting, pretzel finishes that were unbelievable,” Moore said.
The three-point shot figures to be Westmont’s best hope to keep up with the Gauchos. The Warriors splashed 124 threes in their first 12 games, hitting them at a robust 42.3% clip.
Both teams have bigger fish to fry, so to speak, after tonight’s game. The Gauchos open their Big West schedule on January 8 at Cal Poly and will host Long Beach State on January 11. They hope the have Heidegger back for the conference games. The dynamic senior guard could pull a comeback like Roth’s recovery from surgery.
Westmont, ranked No. 11 in the NAIA, will play three Golden State Athletic Conference road games before a January 18 showdown at home against No. 2 The Master’s College.
PIGSKIN REVIEW: The 150th anniversary season of college football is almost in the books. I attended the official commemorative game on November 9: Princeton vs. Dartmouth at Yankee Stadium. It was Rutgers that clashed with Princeton when the sport made its debut in 1869, but since the former is now in the Big Ten, the Big Green of Dartmouth took its place.
Accounts of the first game described a bruising affair. There were 25 players on a side, and they kicked and batted the ball back and forth between goal lines. When they reached the prescribed 10 goals, Rutgers was a 6-4 winner.
It took decades for the game to evolve to its present form. An important innovation was the forward pass, which opened up the action after close combat resulted in numerous fatalities at the turn of the century.
Head injuries are still a concern, and Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens has taken the radical step of eliminating all man-to-man tackling in practice. Since practicing against dummies only, the Green Wave has seen the incidence of concussions drop from 15-20 a season to one or two. Teevens reported that missed tackles in the games dropped by a half.
“If we don’t change the way that we coach the game,” Teevens said, “we won’t have a game to coach.” And Dartmouth would not have had a 27-10 victory over Princeton to celebrate.
Ivy League football is for old-school purists. Its members do not play in postseason bowl games or playoffs. They go through a 10-game season. That’s six fewer games than John Harris, a sophomore linebacker at Columbia, played for Bishop Diego High in 2017 when the Cardinals won a state championship.
“It keeps the stakes high during league play,” Harris said after Columbia defeated Harvard in overtime, 17-10. “Every Ivy League game is a must-win contest.”
Harris was a two-way star at Bishop. “I miss carrying the ball a little bit sometimes, but I love linebacker,” he said. He made eight tackles, five of them solo, against Harvard. “It just comes down to how physical you play, which I’ve learned to enjoy a lot.”