Every game is important.
That saying is one of the biggest clichés in sports and while it is universally true, especially down the stretch of a season, some games do have more importance than others.
Tonight there will be one of those very important games for the UCSB women’s basketball team.
In their final road series of the regular season, the Gauchos travel to UC Riverside today for a battle between the two teams at the bottom of the Big West standings.
“[Riverside is] still playing with a sense of urgency. There are always seniors on another team that sometimes aren’t looking at the record,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “They’re trying to extend their playing careers and go out on a good note. I know we’re probably going to get their best game, no doubt about it, especially since they were our first conference win.”
Santa Barbara enters the matchup in eighth place at 2-8 in conference and 7-16 overall. The Highlanders are currently in the cellar of the Big West standings at 1-10 in league and 5-19 overall. With only the top eight teams going to playoffs, this game could have serious postseason implications.
All season, consistency has been the biggest problem for UCSB. Even this past weekend, the Gauchos beat Long Beach in a nearly flawless game, scoring a season-high 80 points while forcing the 49ers into 22 turnovers before falling in blowout fashion to Cal State Northridge.
“We’re trying to focus on putting two games together. We know that we can be a spectacular team one night and not so good another night,” senior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We’re trying to limit those highs and lows and continue to be positive and use the momentum to make good things happen. For us, it’s going to be about putting two games together, especially on the road.”
Unlike the Long Beach game, Santa Barbara fell behind early against the Matadors and could never recover. The Gauchos were also dominated on the boards as Northridge outrebounded UCSB 55-28.
As a result, the focus this week for UCSB was rebounding. In fact, in the Gauchos’ first conference victory this year when they beat Riverside 74-61 in the Thunderdome, Santa Barbara won the rebounding battle by a wide margin, 55-30, including 21-6 on the offensive boards. This led to 23 second-chance points and the Gauchos outscoring the Highlanders 34-6 in the paint.
This season, UCSB averages 40.0 rebounds in victories compared to 30.6 in losses.
“We keep getting reminded that we had 55 rebounds (last time against UCR), which was our highest rebounding game this year,” senior guard Melissa Zornig said. “That’s obviously what let us win the game, so if we focus on that, we should be good.”
After losing 16 straight games, Riverside finally earned its first conference win Saturday 87-75 over UC Irvine. The Highlanders won the game on the offensive end, shooting 53.8 percent from the field and a phenomenal 61.1 percent from three-point range.
Leading Riverside, per usual, was sophomore guard Brittany Crain. She scored 22 against Irvine and was one of four players in double-figures for the Highlanders. On the season, Crain leads the Big West in scoring at 18.5 points per game.
“I don’t know if you’re ever going to stop a great player like her, but we have to make her work,” Mitchell said. “With a player like that, you have to ID her at all times and make her work to score her points.”
On the offensive end for UCSB, the Gauchos will continue to look to their seniors. Nesbit led the team with 20 points in the last matchup while Zornig also added 16 points.
Recently, Zornig has caught fire, recording her first career double-double in Northridge with 21 points and 11 rebounds, including 4-6 shooting from behind the arc. The leader in three-point percentage during conference play at 57.4 percent has hit at least two threes in eight straight games and currently stands 17 points shy of 1,000 points.
“[Zornig] continues to have an attack mentality and she’s shooting the ball with confidence,” Mitchell said. “She’s taking good shots, she’s being assertive on the offensive end and she’s also rebounding. She’ll get two or three rebound putbacks every game, so she’s scoring in a variety of ways.”
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at SRC Arena.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of February 20, 2014′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.