A heave from well beyond half court by UCSB forward Koat Keat Tong banked off the rim as the buzzer sounded and UC Riverside snapped the Gauchos’ nine-game winning streak with a 65-64 victory on Saturday night at the Thunderdome.
The Gauchos trailed 61-48 with 3:09 remaining before a 16-4 run put them on the brink of victory, but their furious rally ultimately fell short.
“We were on a nine-game winning streak and, I think, fat, dumb, and happy. We thought we could just show up and you just can’t just show up,” said UCSB coach Joe Pasternack. “We waited until the last 3:48 and I thought it was the hardest our team has played this year.”
UCSB shot 2-of-17 from the three-point line and lost the rebound battle 32 to 24. UC Riverside forward Kyle Owens finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds, both of which were game-highs.
The Highlanders (12-6 overall, 5-1 Big West) are now a half-game ahead of UCSB (13-3, 4-1) in the Big West standings after the victory. Both teams trail UC Irvine as the Anteaters are unbeaten in Big West play at 5-0.
“I was afraid that it was going to take a loss after winning nine in a row to put us back in reality, but this was coming,” Pasternack said. “We have one word, ‘attitude,’ is how you respond when something bad happens, and we have to be able to respond.”
The Gauchos were led offensively by Ajay Mitchell, who finished with 15 points and four assists. Cole Anderson added 13 points. Miles Norris and Andre Kelly chipped in 12 points apiece.
However, UCSB was unable to get enough stops in the second half to stop UC Riverside from surging ahead.
“This is about defense and rebounding, playing two halves, and we’ve struggled playing for 40 minutes,” Pasternack said. “That’s what it’s about in conference play: the teams that get better in January and February so they are at their best in March; that’s kind of the whole deal.”
UCSB jumped out to a 10-3 lead to open the game on a mid-range jumper by Norris and led for the majority of the first half. But UC Riverside closed the first half on a 13-2 run capped off by a Jamal Hartwell three-pointer and took a 27-25 lead into the break.
The Highlanders extended their lead to 40-31 at the 16:20 mark of the second half on a three-point play by Lachlan Olbrich.
The Gauchos cut the deficit to two points multiple times in the second half, but never took the lead. A nice post move and basket inside by Cameron Flynn gave UC Riverside a 60-48 lead with 3:45 remaining.
From that point forward, UCSB stormed back. A spin through traffic resulting in a layup at the rim for Norris cut the deficit to 61-52 with 2:39 remaining. Norris followed that up with a deep three-pointer that trimmed the UC Riverside lead to 61-57 with 1:16 to play.
A three-point play by Mitchell brought the UCSB deficit down to 63-60 with 40 seconds remaining. The Gauchos got two possessions down the stretch trailing by three points, but UC Riverside fouled on both occasions.
Anderson knocked down two free throws, cutting the deficit to 63-62 with 5.9 seconds remaining, and two free throws by Mitchell cut the Gauchos’ deficit to 65-64 with 2.4 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing inbounds, UC Riverside launched the ball downcourt into the waiting arms of Keat rather than attempt to inbound in the back court under immense pressure, resulting in the final desperation attempt.
The Gauchos have three games next week, beginning with a road contest at first-place UC Irvine on Monday at 6 p.m.