MALIBU — The atmosphere in Firestone Fieldhouse didn't have the same glitz and electricity as Barclay’s Center, but the two games in the sub-regional of the Progressive Legends Classic offered more intrigue than their high-major counterparts.
Montana, Oral Roberts, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara converged at Pepperdine’s home gym for the tournament’s undercard. While Penn State and Texas A&M blew out Pitt and Oklahoma State, respectively, in the main event, the four mid-majors kept things interesting in the sub-regional.
In the first game, Montana fended off Oral Roberts in a 69-64 defensive trudge, whereas UCSB and Pepperdine lit up the scoreboard for a fast-paced 92-84 finale that was closer than the box score indicated.
Although both games look drastically different on paper, the constant between the two games was defense stifling second-half runs. Both Montana and UCSB were outscored by their opponents in the second half, yet both defenses stood their ground in order to emerge with victories.
Here are some takeaways from the Legends Classic’s first day of action:
Montana’s defense is quite good...
The first game of the doubleheader was a defensive slog.
The Grizzlies — who came in ranked No. 166 in defensive efficiency and No. 62 in turnover percentage per KenPom — set the tone on defense by forcing a shot clock violation on Oral Roberts’ second offensive possession.
Montana’s defense relies heavily on double-teams and pestering opposing guards near the mid-court line. Guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine were incredibly active on defense, which garnered high praise from Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills after the game.
“You have to take of the ball,” Mills said, “Montana is obviously a really good defensive team: They’ve got a four-year kid [Ahmaad Rorie] at the point guard spot, and their lineup went junior-junior-senior-junior. So they’re really experienced.”
Oral Roberts committed 8 turnovers in the first half — which was nearly at their 13 turnovers-per-game average — and shot a paltry 37.5% from the floor.
“Our inability to get into side-ball screens in the first half was concerning, and we were able to do that in the second half and make plays out of it,” Mills said, “I was a little disappointed by the inability to get into the post, on the account of the side-ball screens. But we’ll watch the film and learn from it.”
...yet Austin Ruder shot the Golden Eagles back into the game
Austin Ruder sparked Oral Roberts’ second-half comeback by making all six of his field goals — five of which were from beyond the arc.
His offensive resurgence was fueled by sinking two free throws in the waning seconds of the first half, which cut Montana’s lead to seven going into intermission.
“Hitting those free throws helped me out a lot,” Ruder said, “And then we just played a lot more scrappy in the second half. My teammates got some looks, I got some open looks, and we’re hoping we can find that in more games.”
To counter Montana’s guards in the second half, Oral Roberts rolled out a smaller lineup. They got the offense rolling to the tune of 50 percent shooting, including hitting 7-of-11 from three.
“We went more guard-oriented than big oriented in the second half,” Mills said, “We started big — 6’10” [forward Javan White], 6’8” [forward Albert Owens] and 6’8” [forward Emmanuel Nzekwesi] — but we didn’t play that way. In the second half, six to ten minutes of the second half was [with a smaller lineup].”
Countering Montana’s backcourt defense with a smaller lineup helped on the other end of the floor too: Oral Roberts outshot the Grizzlies in the second half (50 to 33 FG%) and held Montana to 17 percent from three.
“I think we did a really great job guarding the three-point line,” Mills said, “That adjustment happened, but the interior is where they got us late.”
“We’ve had a little bit of a struggle playing with a lot of effort this year,” Ruder said, “I think we turned it up in the second half, and that fueled the rest of the game.”
Offensive performances stole the show in Pepperdine v. UC Santa Barbara
If college basketball had League Pass, then UCSB-Pepperdine would have been a prime late-night basketball binge.
Both teams played significantly quicker than their preferred pace in the first half. Led by smaller, guard-centric lineups and athletic stretch-forwards Kameron Edwards (Pepperdine) and Leland King II (UCSB), the Waves and Gauchos played an uptempo, high-shooting first half — compared to the grit-and-grind of Montana-Oral Roberts, that is.
Career nights from sophomore forward Kameron Edwards — 27 points on 13-for-18 shooting — and freshman guard Colbey Ross — 25 points (with 3-4 from three) in his fourth collegiate game — powered the Waves, who kept it close by attacking the interior and feeding Edwards’ hot hand.
Yet both weren’t enough for the host team to upset the Gauchos.
The Gauchos baited the Waves into critical mistakes on the offensive end: The young Pepperdine team committed 20 turnovers to the Gauchos’ six — including a three-turnover, 3:43 scoreless stretch to close out the first half.
UCSB sophomore Max Heidegger led the Gauchos in scoring once again with 24 points on 50 percent shooting. Although the sophomore guard’s breakout season has been defined from his big shots beyond the arc, he had to adjust and attack the basket against the Waves.
“I fell in love with the three a little too much, but my coaches kept telling me to keep attacking the rim,” Heidegger said, “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do well. You have to [compliment the outside shot] especially at my position. You have to score from multiple levels — at the rim, midrange and from three. And a lot of the time, the threes aren't going to go in the way you want to, so you have to have those other things.”
To wit, Heidegger didn't score as well from the outside in the second half, but the sophomore guard drove into the paint and hit midrange shots when the Gauchos needed to quell Pepperdine’s second-half surges.
The Gauchos’ main contributors followed suit, as King showed his ability to stretch the floor by sinking two timely threes in the second half. The graduate transfer from Nevada was one of five Gauchos in double figures with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting (including a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range).
“Pick your poison” against UC Santa Barbara
The Gauchos improved overnight as graduate transfer Marcus Jackson suited up for the first time on Monday night. The one-time Rice starter missed the first three games of this season after suffering a hip injury before the season opener.
Although it was only one game, having Jackson back on the court helped the Gauchos on both ends of the floor. The graduate transfer made plays on both ends of the floor, which was most apparent early in the first half. Jackson’s first points in a UCSB uniform came from a layup at the 17:46 mark; on the ensuing defensive possession, Jackson came up with a steal, which led to a three from Heidegger.
All in all, the Gauchos have four different players that can be their go-to scorers in Heidegger, Jackson, King and 1,000-point scorer Gabe Vincent, who has developed from a points-first two-guard to the Gauchos’ best distributor in his senior season.
“Having Marcus [Jackson] is nice because it helps a lot,” Vincent said, “Teams have to guard us differently because we have another threat to score. But it makes it easier for me when I can just come off a few screens and make a good basketball play, knowing that the other four guys on the floor can all score.”
The next step for the Gauchos will be to effectively balance their four contributors on the offensive end, but having four offensive weapons has been invaluable so far.
“That makes it difficult for opposing defenses because they have to pick their poison,” Vincent said, “Do they want me to get a layup, or do you want my teammates to get an open three? It makes it easier for everyone.”
Statlines of note:
Kameron Edwards (Pepperdine): 27 pts (72 FG%), 5 rebs, 2 blks, 1 stl
Max Heidegger (UCSB): 24 pts (50 FG%, 4-9 from three), 4 asts, 3 stls
Ahmaad Rorie (Montana): 18 pts (43.8 FG%, 3-8 from three), 6 asts, 3 stls
Colbey Ross (Pepperdine): 25 pts (77 FG%, 3-4 from three), 5 rebs, 4 asts
Austin Ruder (Oral Roberts): 19 pts (66 FG%, 5-7 from three), 5 rebs, 3 asts
Today’s Legends Classic Subregional Matchups:
UCSB vs. Montana — 5:00 p.m. (Stream via Stadium)
Oral Roberts vs. Pepperdine — 7:30 p.m. (Stream via TheW.TV)