FULLERTON, Calif. – After losing two close games to open the Big West Conference road season, UC Santa Barbara turned the tables on Thursday night, overcoming a 14-point deficit to win at Cal State Fullerton, 70-65.
The Gauchos (15-5 overall, 4-2 in the Big West) struggled through their worst offensive half of the season as they shot just 29.6% and scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, but by halftime, they had cut a 14-point lead in half and trailed just 31-24.
The Titans (11-8, 4-3) extended the lead back to 44-32 on a slam dunk and free throw by Jackson Rowe with 14:51 to play, but then UCSB started to inch back into the game.
"That's one of the gutsiest games I've ever been involved with," said head coach Joe Pasternack. "Nothing seemed to go right for us in the first half. We couldn't make shots, we were turning the ball over, we were getting outrebounded, but we found a way to get back into it and in the end we found a way to pull it out."
As the Gauchos grappled to find points in the second half, they turned to their leading scorer and the leading scorer in the Big West, Max Heidegger, and he responded. The sophomore scored 18 of his game-high 28 points in the half to lead the comeback.
"The first half, we just seemed to come out a little flat and maybe tight," Heidegger said. "It took a while for any of us to get into a rhythm, but we kept playing hard defensively and things started to click late."
Heidegger was scoreless until he made a long three-pointer more than 10 minutes into the game. He scored all 28 of his points in the final 29:37.
UCSB cut the lead into single-digits for good when Leland King II scored five straight points, turning a 44-32 game into a 44-37 contest with 13:17 left in the game. King finished with 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Fullerton's lead hovered around seven for the next five minutes and it was back to 52-44 when Kyle Allman made a free throw line jumper with 8:21 remaining. Allman finished with a team-high 24 points.
Back-to-back baskets by Jalen Canty cut the gap to 52-48. Heidegger then came up with a defensive rebound, brought the ball all the way down, drove the lane and scored on a hanging, double-pump shot deep inside the key. He was fouled by Arkin Robertson on the play and made the free throw to pull the Gauchos within one, 52-51, with 6:26 left in the game.
On the other end, Allman was fouled on a drive to the basket and made both free throws to extend the lead to 54-51. Again, it was Heidegger who answered for UCSB. Somehow he found himself wide open in the left corner in transition and Marcus Jackson found him. He calmly nailed a three, tying the score at 54 with 6:01 on the clock.
Allman, who leads the league in free throw attempts, was fouled going to the basket again and, again, he made both free throws to make it 56-54 at the 5:45 mark.
After the teams traded missed shots, Jackson was fouled going to the basket for the Gauchos and he made 1-of-2 free throws. Jackson Rowe missed a long three for the Titans and Ami Lakoju rebounded for Santa Barbara. He got the ball to Heidegger who pulled up and drained a long three from above the three-point arc, giving his team its first lead of the game, 58-56 with 4:20 left.
Allman then made the first of two free throws to halve UCSB's lead. He missed the second, but Rowe was there for the follow to give the advantage back to his team, 59-58 with just over four minutes to play.
A power lay-up by Gabe Vincent turned the lead back over to the Gauchos, 60-59, but Fullerton scored four straight, the last two on a lay-up by Austen Awosika, to reclaim a 63-60 lead with 2:24 to play.
Heidegger made a pair of free throws after he was fouled driving to the basket and, after Allman missed a lay-up on the other end, King drained a free throw line jumper with 1:27 remaining, giving UCSB the lead for good, 64-63.
Following a timeout, Fullerton turned the ball over and was forced to foul Heidegger intentionally. Once again, he made both free throws, pushing the lead to 66-63 with 28 seconds left. The Titans then elected to go for a quick two as Awosika was fouled going to the bucket. He made a pair of free throws and the score was 66-65 with 20 seconds left.
Heidegger was intentionally fouled again and he completed a perfect 12-for-12 night at the free throw line by making two more with 19 ticks left on the clock. Jackson then rebounded a missed lay-up by Khalil Ahmad and was fouled with seven seconds left. He made both free throws to give Santa Barbara an insurmountable 70-65 lead.
"Wow, 12-for-12 from the free throw line," Pasternack said. "He is can score in so many ways. He can shoot the three, he can get to the rim, he can make free throws. Max is just such a great offensive player."
Heidegger's 28 points came on 6-of-14 overall and 4-for-9 from three-point range in addition to his perfect night at the line. Canty joined Heidegger and King in double-figures with 12 points. Vincent made just 2-of-10 field goal attempts, but hit 4-of-5 free throws to finish with eight points. He also added a career-high five steals.
As a team, the Gauchos shot a season-best 26-of-30 from the free throw line, 86.7%. The free throw performance helped them overcome a 35.1% shooting night from the field.
UCSB will remain on the road and play at UC Riverside on Saturday evening at 5:00 p.m. The game against the Highlanders will be carried online by ESPN3 and Watch ESPN.