Josh Pierre-Louis scored 20 points and dished out five assists before fouling out late in the game. | Credit: Courtesy Big West Conference

The UCSB men’s basketball team is one win away from the NCAA Tournament following a 92-87 victory over UC Riverside in the Big West Conference Tournament semifinals on Friday night.

The Gauchos dropped both regular season meetings to UC Riverside, but outlasted the Highlanders when it mattered most behind stellar performances from Ajay Mitchell and Josh Pierre-Louis.

“I was just thinking about winning. We were one game away from the championship so that’s all I was worried about,” said Mitchell of his mentality late in the game. “I knew at the end of the game I have to be able to make those shots,  take those shots and if I’m not open find the open man.”

A pair of unlikely heroes in the front court Matija Belic and Evans Kipruto gave the Gauchos a lift off the bench with starting center Andre Kelly in foul trouble for much of the game. Belic scored eight points, including his first two three-pointers of the season and Kipruto scored six points on three-of-three shooting from the field

“I’m just so proud of our guys. Matija Belic came off the bench tonight and hit two huge threes. Evans Kipruto in the first half I thought gave us awesome minutes [shooting] three-of-three,” said UCSB head coach Joe Pasternak. “We got in foul trouble and our guys just kept battling. It was an awesome game for a fan, it wasn’t a fun game for a coach.”

UC Riverside delivered the first punch of the game and jumped out to an early 13-2 lead behind impressive shot making. Big West Freshman of the Year Olbrich Lachlan scored the first five points of the game and senior point guard Cameron Flynn followed that up with two three-pointers during the opening run.

Flynn finished with a career-high 31 points, including five-of-right shooting from three-point range and 12-for-12 from the free-throw line.

After weathering the early storm UCSB methodically worked back into the game and tied the game at 23-23 on Belic’s first three-pointer of the game with 7:59 remaining in the first half. 

It was a game where neither team was able to gain a comfortable lead and a quick 6-0 run by UC Riverside, capped off by a Flynn three-pointer, gave the Highlanders a 42-39 lead at the break.

The second half was tight throughout, but Mitchell was once again spectacular, getting to the rim, finding teammates and effortlessly controlling tempo. He scored 18 of his team-high 28 points after the break.

A three-pointer by Wil Tattersall with 28 seconds to play cut the UC Riverside deficit  to 86-83 and on the ensuing inbounds Mitchell was called for a traveling violation, which put the Highlanders within striking distance.

However, a Vladimer Salaridze three-pointer clanked off the rim with 19 seconds to play. Calvin Wishart, Cole Anderson and Ajay Mitchell were perfect at the free-throw line for UCSB in the final seconds as the Gauchos held on for the hard-fought victory.

“Our guys really brought it and played for 40 minutes and that’s what we talk about,” said Pasternack of his team’s effort.

Pierre-Louis finished with 20 points, four rebounds and five assists. Miles Norris added 16 points and seven rebounds.

Now the Gauchos turn their attention to Cal State Fullerton, a team riding an eight-game winning streak, in the Big West Championship Game with an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament on the line. Tip off is scheduled for Saturday, at 6 p.m. at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada.


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