The Gauchos are ready to put their sparring matches against the Trojans and the Wildcats behind them after a rough start to their season.

The UCSB women’s basketball team struggled to record another victory after stomping Louisville in its opener, losing to USC 60-56 at the Sports Arena on Friday and again to Arizona 71-63 at the Thunderdome on Sunday.

Although Santa Barbara stumbled out of the gate with a 1-3 start, it has competed against some of the top programs in the country, and all of its losses have been in single digits.

“I hope some of these close games come out in our favor,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said.

The Gauchos had the upper hand against the Wildcats, bouncing around from even scores to leading by as many as five in the first half before settling for a 32-32 halftime tie. Senior forward Nicole Greathouse came out scorching, drilling in all her 13 points in the first half, including smoking her first three-point tries and pulling down five rebounds en route to an early 12-7 lead.

Santa Barbara continued to play strong in the second half, yet it could not pull away from Arizona down the stretch. Senior guard Rachelle Rogers knotted the game up at 58-58 with a free throw at the 3:21 mark. The Wildcats then put UCSB away in the final few minutes of play with freshman forward Veranda James’ lay up and junior forward Elizabeth Pickney’s jumper for a 62-58 lead with 1:51 in the game.

Arizona made nine of 10 free throws to seal the game and snuff out any Gaucho rally, despite a put-back by freshman guard Lisa Willett off a Greathouse miss and a trey by Rogers to cut into the deficit in the final 30 seconds of the contest.

“For us, we’re proud of how we handled ourselves down the stretch,” Arizona Head Coach Joan Bonvicini said. “When we got the lead with two minutes left, we showed a lot of poise.”

The Wildcats sporadically threw out a full-court press throughout the game that rattled the Gauchos. Sophomore point guard Debby Caine started the game on a rough note, turning the ball over three times in the first half and stumbling into the bleachers after diving for a loose ball.

“I hit my head on the play,” Caine said. “I came out a little slow [Sunday], and some games I get rattled. I knew I had to stay in it and not let it bother me.”

From that point on, Caine made her presence felt on both sides of the ball by finishing with team-high totals of 16 points, six assists and a steal, while logging a game-high 37 minutes.

Bonvicini was very impressed with the play of Caine and Greathouse, and the Wildcats’ coach was so worried about containing Caine that she placed 6’2″ Krista Warren on her in the second half.

“I was noticing [Warren] was guarding me,” Caine said. “They usually don’t stick 6’2″ girls on me. They usually stick small little girls on me.”

French is mildly disappointed in his younger players and in the coaching staff because they have not exploited their strengths and received the full potential of his rising athletes.

“The thing that we’re going to struggle with is execution and execution down the stretch,” French said. “We didn’t score down the stretch.”

Sophomore guard Jess Hansen suffered a hip pointer, a contusion of the bone, late in the game. Hansen is not expected to miss any games due to the injury.

French has struggled to get an elusive win from longtime rival Bonvicini, who tormented French at Long Beach State before arriving at Arizona. With last night’s win, Bonvicini holds an 18-0 advantage over French’s teams.

“One of these days I will still aspire to get a win over Joan,” French said.

Before the Gauchos’ home opener at the Thunderdome, they had trouble with the Trojans in a tightly contested battle. Caine led Santa Barbara with 15 points, and Hansen scored eight points and dished out four assists. UCSB literally gave the game away by turning the ball over 35 times, allowing USC to shoot the ball 27 more times than the Gauchos.

Santa Barbara shot fairly well, connecting on 44.7 percent of its field goals as opposed to 27.7 percent by Southern California, but the tremendous number of turnovers doomed UCSB.

Kent State is slated next for Santa Barbara in the Wells Fargo Classic on December 1-3. Arizona State will host the tournament.