Saturday night’s victory over second-place Irvine on the road proved to be a test of character for the #19 UCSB women’s basketball team.

The Gauchos stared defeat in the face in the second half against the Anteaters and met the challenge, showing why they are eight-time champions of the conference. After trailing at halftime and for most of the contest, the recently crowned Big West Champions rallied to put up 50 points in the second period en route to a 78-56 win over UCI at the Bren Events Center.

“We had so much confidence that we were going to come back and win,” junior center Lindsay Taylor said. “We can’t get into this habit of playing like 20 minutes of good basketball. We’re not going to be able to come back at the NCAA Tournament when we play teams like Texas or Louisiana Tech.”

UCSB improved to 21-4 on the season, including a 13-1 output in the Big West. Santa Barbara has already clinched the #1 seed in the upcoming Big West Tournament in Anaheim on March 12-15. Santa Barbara next hopes to secure an automatic bid to the 2003 NCAA Tournament by winning three straight in Anaheim.

Once the Gauchos enter the 64-team tournament, anything is possible.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we are capable of being a Sweet 16 team,” junior guard/forward Lisa Willett said last month.

UCSB built a commanding 20-12 lead over the Anteaters (16-10 overall, 9-6 in the Big West) with 7:59 left in the first half. That’s when UCI junior forward Christina Callaway found her range.

After knotting the score at 20, Callaway netted 10 straight points over a 2:51 period, including a basket with 4.1 seconds that sent Irvine into the locker room up 33-28. Callaway scored 17 points in the first half while Santa Barbara’s brightest stars, Taylor and sophomore forward Kristen Mann, staggered into the half with three fouls each.

“[Callaway] was definitely in the zone in the first half,” Taylor said. “Every time she shot the ball it went in.”

After struggling at the outset of the second half, Santa Barbara climbed back. The Gauchos chipped away at the deficit with a 7-0 run capped by Taylor’s three-point play to hand UCSB a 39-37 lead.

Over the next few minutes the teams exchanged baskets and the Gauchos hung on to a slim three-point edge.

That’s when Santa Barbara found the light.

The Gauchos ended the game on an uncanny defensive performance, closing out the contest with a 26-3 run over the final 10 minutes. Taylor collected 10 of her game-high 20 points during the run, making moves inside that seemed effortless.

Four Santa Barbara players scored in double digits. Sophomore guard Mia Fisher finished with 14 points on 7-14 shooting and Willett added 10 while sophomore forward Brandy Richardson equaled a career-best 13 points.

The Gauchos return to the Thunderdome for their final two games of the regular season. Santa Barbara hopes to take care of Cal State Fullerton on Thursday night at 7 and Riverside on Saturday.