Despite a valiant comeback in the fourth quarter, the UCSB women’s basketball team’s season ended on Tuesday night when it fell to UC Irvine in the first round of the Big West Tournament, 53-46.

Yet again, a slow start and a poor shooting night proved to be the Gauchos’ kryptonite. The Anteaters outscored Santa Barbara 18-8 in the first quarter and would never look back, holding the lead for the rest of the game.

“We’ve struggled all year getting off to bad starts,” Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “It’s hard to win games in the 50s and 40s, so we need to be more committed to getting off to better starts.”

In that eight-point first quarter, every single Gaucho starter was held scoreless, with junior Tal Sahar leading the bench unit with five points. Defensively, UCSB could do little to slow down Irvine’s offense in the quarter. With leading scorer and First Team All-Big West forward Jordan Sanders back from a concussion, Irvine was able to space the floor better than it had recently. Senior guard Andee Ritter led the team with six points in the quarter — all from behind the arc — and junior guard Lauren Saiki pitched in four points and three assists.

After that quarter, Santa Barbara’s defense improved significantly, with UCSB holding Irvine to 15 points below its conference average on the season. Unfortunately, its offense remained as stagnant as it has been all season. For the game, Santa Barbara shot a measly 15-59 from the floor, including 3-25 from behind the arc.

“We know that for next year we have work to do offensively,” Henrickson said. “When we only shoot 25 percent, we know we have to knock down shots.”

Despite the rough shooting night for the team, junior center Natalia Bruening played one of her best individual games of the season. With nothing working on the perimeter, the ‘Chos looked to feed the big inside, and Bruening responded with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Just as importantly, Bruening stayed out of foul trouble on Tuesday, allowing her to play 34 minutes in the crucial game.

By running its offense through Bruening, UCSB was able to go on a late run, cutting the lead down to only five points with 1:16 left in the game. Still, it was not to be for the eighth-seed Gauchos on Tuesday, with guards Coco Miller and Kiana Vierra both missing open threes that could have brought the deficit all the way down to two.

While her shooting was spotty throughout the night, Sanders’ return proved to be the difference for Irvine, with the star forward making both her free throws and grabbing five rebounds in the fourth quarter to secure the victory for the Anteaters. UCI will look to keep its season going on Wednesday when it takes on defending tournament champions CSUN at 8:30 p.m.

For the Gauchos, Tuesday’s loss marks the end of a volatile season filled with struggles, especially on the offensive end. Still, at the postgame presser on Tuesday, Henrickson hailed the spirit of her young team.

“We could’ve given up on the season after starting conference play 1-7, but these kids never gave up,” Henrickson said. “They were coachable the whole season.”

Coco Miller also praised the effort of her team on the season, citing their continued belief and battling as progress.

“In the beginning of the season, we got down as a group when the other team went on runs, and we’d get even more down,” she said. “Towards the end of the season, we started going on our own runs, and they got longer and longer as the season went on.”

With only one graduating senior, Henrickson will bring back almost all of her weapons for next season. After a whole year of experience under their belt, this group will be looking to grow and come back stronger than ever next season.

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