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Coming into tonight’s game with a 2-3 conference record and a blowout 66-47 loss to Cal Poly lingering in its mind, the UCSB women’s basketball team needed to prove that it could play with the best in the Big West.
With a dominating 56-37 victory over Cal State Northridge, the Gauchos showed why they are the defending Big West Champions, defeating the Matadors for the 12th consecutive time and handing them just their second home loss of the season.
“I think that we knew with the team that Northridge is, and them being at the top of the conference, it was going to be a huge game for us,” junior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We were fired up after that loss to Cal Poly, so that played a huge part in it.”
Santa Barbara improved to 7-11 overall and 3-3 in conference while Northridge dropped its third consecutive game, falling to 10-8 overall and 4-3 in league.
UCSB is now 7-1 when it takes a lead into the second half, so a quick start on the road was critical for UCSB. Despite starting the game down 0-4 and giving up two quick turnovers, the Gauchos never let Northridge run away with the lead. No team led by more than five points in the first half and Santa Barbara headed into the locker rooms up 21-17.
“I just know that CSUN came out fired up,” Nesbit said. “We were in their house, but we responded well. It was a little chaotic to start, but we settled down and we were able to take care of business.”
The Gauchos began the second half on fire, going on a 20-6 run that would keep the game out of reach for the Matadors. With 3:27 remaining, UCSB went up by 20 points, its largest lead of the game.
“We just came out really confident,” Nesbit said. “We knew exactly what we had to do. We needed to stay calm and handle their pressure, and when we did, we knocked down our shots and we were shooting with confidence.”
The run was sparked by the play of senior center Kirsten Tilleman, who scored the first four points of the second half for UCSB.Tilleman finished the night just shy of a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds.
“What we saw from Tilleman tonight was what we saw during the Big West Tournament last year,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “Hopefully she’ll continue to be confident after tonight and that will open other players up.”
Overall, Santa Barbara had three players record double-digit scoring. Senior forward Sweets Underwood led the way offensively for the Gauchos, tallying a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards. Nesbit also scored 12 points on the evening while junior guard Melissa Zornig contributed 10 points as well as a team-leading four assists and four steals.
“When you have Mel knock down a couple threes, it opens up shots for other people on the inside,” Mitchell said. “Tilleman was one point and rebound away from a double-double, so in my mind we had four in double figures. You can win a lot of games with four players in double figures.”
Despite being known as a defensive team, the offense was flowing for UCSB as the team shot 46.8 percent from the field, including 57.7 percent in the second half. The Gauchos also dished out 15 assists compared to the Matadors’ six, and although they turned the ball over more, outscored Northridge 24-13 on points off turnovers.
“We continued to push it in transition,”Mitchell said.“When you make jumpers and you attack and get to the rim, we understand that’s what this team has to do to be successful. We have to have an attack mentality.”
Nevertheless, the defense was certainly up to par for Santa Barbara. Nobody finished in double figures for the Matadors and as a team, Northridge shot just 24.5 percent from the field.
“We always emphasize our defense and it was a matter of staying low, sticking to our defensive plan and guarding dribble penetration,” Underwood said.“It takes focus to do that and I think the focus was there.”
One focus entering the game for UCSB was defending Northridge’s three point shooting, since the team leads the Big West in three point field goal percentage at 34.8 percent. The Gauchos led the Matadors to just 14.3 percent shooting (3-21) from distance.
“At the end of the day, when you pressure teams early and have a hand in their face, they shoot quicker or get more hesitant,” Mitchell said. “We made them work hard for every shot and we contested their shots, so that was definitely the key to the game.”
UCSB will finish up its three-game road trip Saturday against Hawaii.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 25th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.