The #19 UCSB women’s basketball team returns home tonight from a grueling four-game road trip with a 3-1 record over that span and some motivation to prove the critics wrong in tonight’s battle with Irvine at the Thunderdome.

Santa Barbara has struggled lately on the road, giving up second-shot opportunities on the offensive glass, committing turnovers, getting into foul trouble and allowing confusion to wreck havoc on its normally smothering defense.

“There reality is simple, we just need to play well,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “I don’t think it’s been an X’s and O’s thing; it’s more emotion.”

The Gauchos (13-3 overall, 6-1 in the Big West) and the Anteaters will square off at 7 this evening in an important in-conference contest for both teams. UCSB, ranked #19 in the country by the USA Today/ESPN College Coaches Poll and #22 by the Associated Press, remains in second place to Big West-leading Long Beach State and is trying to get over the hump.

Santa Barbara might need the return of sophomore Kristen Mann to get them to the top of the Big West charts. Mann’s minutes were limited in UCSB’s win over Cal Poly last weekend, her first game in nearly two months, and she is scheduled to gradually increase her playing time in games to come.

“It was great to have her back,” junior guard Lisa Willett said. “She’s just a great all-around player, but more so, it’s just her knowledge of the game.”

UCI (11-6, 4-2) is also situated in a great position to make a run at the conference title, sitting third in the Big West with two games remaining against the Gauchos and a March 7 season finale rematch with LBSU.

“[Irvine is] a good, balanced team. They have a nice blend of an in-and-out game,” French said. “They have several players in the four and five positions that can really play. [Senior forward] Wendy Gabbe is very similar to our Jess Hansen.”

Gabbe is coming off an outstanding week for the Anteaters. The senior from Eugene, Ore. was named Big West Player of the Week for her efforts in two UCI wins over Pacific and CSUN. The red-hot Gabbe is averaging 20.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game over the two-game span. Gabbe can control the ball too, committing zero turnovers in 74 total minutes last week.

French takes a philosophical approach to the coaching game and has demanded personal responsibility and individual accountability from his players. In order to ride the storm, the coaching staff has changed little in the game plan to sort out any mishaps.

“Ten years from now, I’m not going to be there looking over these girls’ shoulders, trying to motivate them to do well at work and with their family,” French said. “I have a real distaste for coaches that make every decision [for their athletes] between the ages of 18-23.We’re all in this together and that’s how we’re going to succeed.”