The Big West regular season schedule may not end for another two weeks, but the UCSB women’s basketball team went a long way toward bringing the hunt for the title to a close with a pair of victories this past weekend.
First up for the Gauchos was UC Riverside, which came into the game with an 8-1 conference record, good for second place in the Big West. However, Santa Barbara proved the difference between first and second place in the Big West standings to be a large one, as it shot a blistering 57.1 percent from the field en route to a 76-51 victory. UCSB then followed up with a hard-fought 81-68 road victory against Cal Poly, a game in which the Gauchos exacted some measure of revenge against the Mustangs for last season’s stunning loss in San Louis Obispo.
The two victories bring Santa Barbara’s winning-streak to 14, and more importantly, provide it with a margin for error in regards to winning the regular season Conference Title. UCSB now leads Riverside by two full games, a lead the Gauchos should be able to protect, provided they play at a similar level for the rest of the season.
“We have won the Big West [Title] the past few years and it seems like we haven’t been challenged,” sophomore center Lindsay Taylor said. “But I really think the Big West does challenge us in other ways. Teams might not be as talented or athletic as us, but then the challenge is to play to our potential every night.”
That potential was not on display early against the Highlanders, who came out with aggression Friday night at the T-dome, blitzing-out to an early 12-5 lead. The Gauchos then awakened, running off 12 straight points to take a 17-12 advantage with just over 11 minutes gone by in the first half.
UCR’s Amy Houchens answered for the Highlanders by burying two triples to bring Riverside to within two at 23-21. Following the treys, UCSB put the clamps down on Riverside, holding it without a field goal for the rest of the half, while increasing its lead to 35-26 at intermission.
The Gauchos’ second half started quickly, with junior guard Jess Hansen knocking down a three-pointer to extend the UCSB lead. After a pair of Highlander hoops, Santa Barbara embarked on a 13-0 spurt that included three layups from Taylor.
Easy shots, such as the gimmes from Taylor, led to Santa Barbara’s outrageous 65.4 percent mark from the field in the second half. That, coupled with UCR’s mediocre 24.3 shooting effort in the second frame, helped the Gauchos to their run-away win.
Hansen led UCSB with a game-high 18 points, while freshman forward Kristen Mann notched her third double-double of the season with 12 points and 13 rebounds. The 13 boards for Mann matched a career-high.
The Gauchos then traveled to Cal Poly, bringing thoughts of avenging last season’s defeat with them.
“Last year’s game was definitely a factor for this year,” senior co-captain guard Kristyn Miller said. “For the returners, we were all excited to get into their gym and beat them. We really wanted to go in there and set the record straight.”
And UCSB certainly appeared that it would do just that as it jumped out to an early 19-5 advantage. Sophomore guard Lisa Willett, who matched her career-high with 15 points, tallied four points during the barrage.
Up big and given the chance to put Cal Poly away in the first half, UCSB allowed the Mustangs to hang around until late in the first frame. Cal Poly then used an 8-2 spurt to close the half, and pull within 33-25.
Having already displayed its generosity in the first period, Santa Barbara used timely long distance shooting to methodically pull away from the Mustangs in period two.
Leading only 36-32, UCSB nailed back-to-back threes from Hansen and Mann to go ahead by 10. Following a Mustang triple, Hansen then connected twice more from beyond the arc to give the Gauchos their biggest lead of the game, 63-46. All in all, UCSB would make five out of its seven attempts from three-point land after intermission to hold off the Mustangs, who scored 10 points in the last 1:32 to make the score closer than the game really was.
“We’re continually trying to get better,” Miller said. “The coaches are doing a great job of giving us goals to accomplish, other than just picking up wins. Some nights it’s to win by 30, others it’s to get a certain amount of rebounds. [The coaches] are really keeping our goals and standards high.”