The #22 UCSB women’s basketball team opens up its Big West schedule at home tonight at 7 in the Thunderdome. Cal State Northridge comes to town, losers of all 12 of its games this season. The Matadors (0-12 overall; 0-1 in the Big West) dropped their conference opener to the University of Idaho 60-43 on Saturday in Moscow.

After opening up conference play with a win against Cal State Fullerton on Saturday on the road, the Gauchos return home to begin an excruciating three-game home stand. Santa Barbara plays three times in five nights, including a nonconference showdown with USC on Thursday and a date with Idaho on Saturday. The Vandals are 2-0 in the Big West and as of today share the conference lead with UCSB.

“We took a calculated risk that we can win all of these games at home and then come out successful in our trip to Illinois and LSU later in the year,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “We are challenging our team to use tonight’s game as practice for the USC game since they are relatively similar.”

If the Matadors have any hope of hanging with the Gauchos tonight, they will need help from one of the hottest players in the Big West right now. CSUN freshman guard Ofa Tulikihihifo has posted three-straight double-doubles, including an 18-point, 12-rebound effort against the Vandals over the weekend. Tulikihihifo is averaging team-highs with 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

Although Northridge may be a tad under par this season, the Gauchos understand that taking them lightly would be a huge mistake.

“Every year we try to be twice as motivated,” sophomore guard Mia Fisher said. “We challenge ourselves on a personal level. We are constantly pushing each other.”

This season, Santa Barbara has scheduled various nonconference games throughout January and February to give the program national exposure and to prepare the squad for the NCAA Tournament in March.

“We need to get in touch with reality,” French said. “If we get in bad habits we need to play teams at the highest level to set things straight for us.”

UCSB has had a successful run this season, considering the loss of one of its top players. Sophomore forward Kristen Mann, Santa Barbara’s leading scorer this season, has been sidelined with a small break in her left forearm. Mann will see a doctor soon and will be re-examined.

“If or when she comes back, we will be adding a ton of talent to this squad,” French said. “The fact that we have picked it up in her absence has given us a lot of confidence.”

The Gauchos have not lost a beat since Mann’s injury in the beginning of December. Junior forward Lisa Willett has been a threat both inside and out. Willett is averaging 10.3 points per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

Sophomore forward Brandy Richardson has been a machine in the rebound department. Richardson is averaging a team-high 9.8 rebounds per game including a career-high 15 boards against Fullerton on Saturday.

The Gauchos are still trying to put together a complete game. In tonight’s match against the lowly Matadors, Santa Barbara will gun for 40 full minutes of intensity and production.