Tritons Come Back from the Brink of Defeat to Shock UCSB in Instant Classic

Redshirt sophomore forward Jake Kosakowski drained a heavily-contested corner three at the buzzer to tie the game at the end of regulation, redshirt sophomore guard Bryce Pope hit two clutch game-winning free throws, and UC San Diego’s men’s basketball team (7–5, 1–0 Big West) stunned defending conference champions UC Santa Barbara (7–5, 0–1 Big West) in overtime, 85–83. Senior forward Toni Rocak had a career-high 34 points, including 9 consecutive UCSD points to begin overtime, as the Tritons scored a massive win in which they had their backs against the wall at the end of both regulation and overtime.

The Tritons entered the match, their Big West season opener, having had little answer for the Gauchos in their two meetings last season, including an 84–53 route that remains the Tritons’ worst defeat at the Division-I level. UCSD was coming off of a tough 78–57 road loss to crosstown rivals San Diego State University but returned to RIMAC Arena seeking to stay undefeated at home in their fifth game in La Jolla this season — however, due to the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the match was played without spectators.

After each team scored their first 2 points off the jump, UCSB put the Tritons in a hole quickly, scoring 10 consecutive points as UCSD failed to score on 6 possessions in a row. The Tritons would get back in the match, however, and a paint jumper from Pope with 12:20 to go in the half brought UCSD within 2 at 12–10. Three minutes later, redshirt junior Matt Gray splashed in a three-pointer in his first possession of action to give UCSD a 17–16 lead, their first advantage so far. After the Gauchos responded with a layup, redshirt sophomore guard Jace Roquemore found Pope for the fastbreak triple to once again put UCSD ahead, 20–18.

As the first period wound down, Rocak, still donning a plastic face mask after breaking his nose in early December, began to heat up. First, after drawing a double team on a screen, Roquemore flipped the ball over his head to a wide-open Rocak at the 3-point line, who brought UCSD within 1 at 24–23 with 4:05 to go in the half. A minute later with the Tritons down 3, Rocak drove inside for a layup, drew contact, and earned an extra point on the free throw to tie the game.

On the next UCSD possession, after freshman forward Francis Nwaokorie got his own rebound in the post, Rocak drove inside and took a hard fall on a layup attempt, but drew a blocking foul and sank his two shots to go up 28–26 with 2:24 left. The Gauchos mustered one more point before halftime arrived with UCSD leading, 28–27.

Graduate guard Jake Killingsworth swished an open triple in the Tritons’ first possession of the second half to extend their lead to 31–27, the biggest yet of the night for UCSD. But the Gauchos kept it close as the half continued. With 13:59 remaining and the Tritons down 1, Pope banked in a deep 3 from the center of the floor to put UCSD up 2; on the very next Triton possession, Pope caught an inbounds pass in the left corner, pulled up, and sank another shot from downtown to extend the lead to 5 with 13:14 to go.

The Tritons had a scary moment soon after with 12:42 remaining, as Nwaokorie and Rocak collided at the baseline and fell with a thud to the hardwood, staying down while UCSB scored the 5-on-3 powerplay easily. Nwaokorie was up quickly, but Rocak stayed down for nearly a minute and walked back into the tunnel. But Rocak would soon be back on the bench, and checked back into the game with 9:55 on the clock.

Meanwhile, the Gauchos had erased the Triton lead and were up 5 with 9:25 remaining, but Roquemore made a smart pass from the post to Killingsworth in the corner for a triple to cut the lead to 2. Still, the Tritons couldn’t capitalize and UCSB was in the driver’s seat as the minutes ticked away, and the Gauchos led by 6 with 2:41 remaining.

Rocak cut the lead to 3 as he sank a driving layup while getting fouled, and hit the foul shot. UCSB responded with a fastbreak layup to push the advantage back to 5, and the Tritons once again faced an uphill battle, down 5 with just 41 seconds to go. Killingsworth missed a three-pointer, but Nwaokorie made a key clutch rebound despite being surrounded by three Gauchos, slapping the ball back out to Killingsworth at the 3-point line. Killingsworth found Rocak, who drove into the lane and laid it up with his left hand to make it 69–66 with 42 seconds remaining.

The next possession was key, as a UCSB bucket would all but end the game, especially as the Gauchos bled the clock down to its final seconds. But the Gauchos’ midrange attempt was off target, and UCSD called a timeout with 11.8 seconds to go, with the ball at the baseline and down three. The Tritons got the ball into Roquemore, who was intentionally fouled by UCSB to send him to the line, as the Gauchos feared a game-tying three-pointer. Roquemore made both shots, cutting the lead to just 69–68. The Tritons then quickly fouled UCSB’s Ajare Sanni with 6.8 seconds to go, sending him to the line, where he made both shots to make it 71–68.

After a timeout, the Tritons got the ball to Rocak at halfcourt, but he was swarmed by defenders and didn’t see an opportunity for the shot, so he quickly called another timeout with 2.6 seconds to go. On the subsequent play, Pope got the ball at the 3-point line and was immediately mobbed by Gauchos; he then was called for a travel on the missed shot attempt with 1.2 seconds remaining, much to the chagrin of Triton coach Eric Olen. That meant the game was all but over for UCSD, as all the Gauchos had to do was run a second off the clock to win.

But UCSB mishandled the inbounds pass, which sailed to the other end of the court and was tipped out-of-bounds as the buzzer rang. But after a lengthy review, the officials determined the ball was last touched by UCSB, and the Tritons got one last gasp, an inbounds pass from the right side of the court with 0.9 seconds to go. Killingsworth inbounded the ball to Kosakowski in the right corner, and with a defender in his face and fading away, Kosakowski turned around and hit the bottom of the net to tie the game at 71, force overtime, and send the Triton bench wild. While Kosakowski leads the Tritons in three-pointers made this season, this was his first triple of the night, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

While Kosakowski was the hero at the end of regulation, the start of overtime was the Toni Rocak show. First, Rocak gave UCSD a 73–72 lead with a post bucket, then after Roquemore missed three on the next possession, drew an over-the-back foul and sank two foul shots to put UCSD up 75–72. On the Gauchos’ next time down the floor, Pope made a steal in the key, and on the other end, Rocak sized up his opponent, then pulled up and knocked down a three from the wing, giving UCSD a 78–72 advantage. On the Tritons’ next possession, Rocak drove into the paint, switched the ball to his right hand, and laid it in; in just half of the overtime period, Rocak had single handedly outscored the Gauchos 9–3, and was the only Triton to score.

But despite the momentum being firmly on the Tritons’ side, UCSB wasn’t out of it yet, scoring the next 7 points and taking an 81–80 lead with 1:24 remaining. Pope responded by taking the ball inside himself, and got a lucky bounce on his layup to go up 82–81. The Gauchos didn’t score on their next possession, and Roquemore added one to the lead with a free throw to make it 83–81.

This gave UCSB the ball down two, and Rocak fouled the Gauchos’ Calvin Wishart on the shot; being his fifth foul of the game, this sent Rocak to the bench, and Wishart to the charity stripe. Wishart hit both shots and tied the game at 83 with 7.6 seconds remaining. The Tritons came down the floor looking to win the game, and in a major mistake for UCSB, their Miles Norris ran into Pope on a deep 3-point attempt with 2.0 seconds to go, sending Pope to the line for three shots. Pope hit both of his first two shots, then intentionally missed the third, and the Gauchos could only hoist a three-quarters-court heave off the mark, giving UCSD the victory, 85–83.

Rocak led the Tritons with 34 points on 12-of-16 shooting, followed by 22 from Pope, including 4 three-pointers; Rocak’s 34 are the most points by a Triton since Tyrell Roberts dropped 45 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association  semifinals in March 2020. Rocak also led UCSD with 7 rebounds, and sank all 8 of his free throws. Both teams were evenly matched all night, as the lead changed hands 15 times.

“That was a great performance. Our competitiveness was at a high level tonight. It would have been easy to give in at a couple points in a game… Nobody really blinked. We kept working and kept competing,” said coach Olen after the game.

The down-to-the-wire win is a massive one for a UCSD team new to the Big West, as the Gauchos were conference champions and played in the NCAA tournament in 2021, and were voted top in the conference by the Big West coaches’ poll. After publication, the Tritons will next go on the road against UC Riverside on Thursday, January 6, and UC Davis on Saturday, January 8.

Image courtesy of Mike McGinnis / UC San Diego Athletics