How does a basketball team overcome only five first-half field goals to defeat a ranked opponent? The answer: it doesn’t.
The UCSB women’s basketball team played its home opener Tuesday night at the Thunderdome against #23 Penn State, but it was the Gauchos who looked as though they were playing on the road, shooting a horrendous 18.5 percent in the first half and 33 percent for the game. And despite a spirited second-half comeback, UCSB’s cold-shooting first half proved too much to overcome, as the Gauchos fell 76-73 to drop to 1-2 on the season. The loss was the Gauchos’ second in a row to a ranked opponent, as UCSB also fell to #8 Stanford, 87-64.
“This game should be our only reminder never to come out like that again,” senior forward Kayte Christensen said. “It was our home opener and we came out flat. It was just like that in practice [on Monday]. We need to be more focused before games. If we come out like we did in the second half, we can play with anybody.”
Down 11 with 1:22 to play, UCSB used a 10-1 run to make the score 74-72 with just 15.8 seconds left in regulation. Sophomore guard/forward Lisa Willett started the spurt with a pair of free throws and a clutch three-pointer. Junior guard Debby Caine followed with a trey of her own, and Christensen chipped in with a layup on a play in which she was fouled. However, with a chance to bring UCSB to within one, Christensen front-rimmed her free throw.
Trailing by two, the Gauchos were forced to foul immediately, sending PSU sophomore forward Jessica Brungo to the line. Brungo made only one of two, leaving the door open for Santa Barbara. After the miss, Caine launched what would have been a game-tying three, only to see it rim out. Christensen then grabbed the rebound and was fouled in the act of shooting, with only two seconds remaining. After making the first free throw, Christensen missed the second, hoping a Gaucho would grab the rebound for a quick put-back. However, it was the 5’7″ freshman guard Jess Strom who snatched the board for PSU before being fouled with 1.3 seconds left to play. Strom proceeded to clank the first free throw before making the second, giving UCSB one final chance. However, Gaucho freshman guard Mia Fisher’s 65-foot heave hit the backboard and bounced away, giving PSU the victory.
“I thought part [of the loss] can be attributed to our youth,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said, after being forced to play two or three freshmen at the same time after the departure of sophomore forward Jess Combs. “As we go along, our freshmen and our veterans will remember that second half and play with that energy and effort, no matter what it says on the chest of the other team.”
The Gauchos’ slow start, however, was not limited to the first half. Trailing 30-19 coming out of the locker room, Santa Barbara promptly gave up five straight points to fall behind 35-19. After both teams exchanged a number of baskets, UCSB finally gained some momentum when freshman guard/forward Kristen Mann buried a jumper and was fouled at the 10:05 mark in the second half. As the ball fell through the hoop, Mann let out a yelp of excitement to energize her teammates.
“I always get excited,” Mann said. “It was a close game – a big game – and when stuff like that happens, you get excited. I like to celebrate and get everybody pumped up.”
Mann then proceeded to convert the three-point play to bring the Gauchos to within nine, at 48-39. Moments later, the Lady Lions would commit their 10th foul of the period, putting UCSB in the bonus with nearly ten minutes remaining. The Gauchos would take advantage of PSU’s foul woes, using the charity stripe to cut into the Lady Lions’ lead.
Although UCSB continued to fight late into the second half, it appeared that every time the Gauchos would make their move, PSU would have an answer. And more often than not, that answer came in the form of sophomore guard Kelly Mazzante. A preseason All-American selection, Mazzante finished with a game-high 32 points on 11-18 shooting.
“Kelly was the preseason favorite for [Big Ten] Conference Player of the Year,” PSU Head Coach Rene Portland said. “She owes it to herself and to her teammates to do what she can do. She was a great shooter in high school, and now she’s really giving us the total game.”
But behind the play, Christensen and the Gauchos mounted one final rally. The senior co-captain scored 17 of her team-high 24 points in the second frame, cutting the UCSB deficit to 58-52. However, the Gauchos could not get the big stop when they needed it, and the game appeared to be all but over when Strom buried a trey to extend the Lady Lions’ lead to ten, with 2:29 remaining. Not to be outdone, Gaucho junior guard Jess Hansen answered with a three of her own to set the stage for the frantic final two minutes.