With conference-leading Pacific coming to town on Saturday, the UCSB women’s basketball team needed to make a statement to the rest of the Big West Conference that they were ready for the stretch run. After struggling for 40 minutes with conference bottom-dweller Northridge on Thursday night, the Gauchos didn’t make the statement they wanted to make.

Behind four crucial free throws during the final minutes from senior guard April McDivitt, Santa Barbara escaped the Matadome with a 72-71 win over Northridge.

“I’m extremely disappointed with our effort tonight,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “I feel bad for Northridge considering the adversity they have gone through with their program. They outplayed us, outhustled us, and should have won the game.”

Junior forward Kristen Mann led the Gauchos with 17 points and tied for a game high with nine rebounds but was equally disappointed with Santa Barbara’s play.

“We played terrible defense and had no heart tonight,” Mann said. “Coach had it right; our effort was ridiculous. Regardless of the statistics, Northridge won the game tonight.”

Santa Barbara didn’t secure their 10th straight win against the Matadors until senior guard Kim Gildersleeve missed an open three-point chance with just seconds remaining in the game. McDivitt made four of six free throws during the final minute and a half to secure the win for the Gauchos.

“April’s a veteran player and we couldn’t have picked a better person to have on the line at that point in the game,” French said.

The Gauchos grabbed a 66-61 lead with three minutes remaining after freshman forward Jenna Green sank both of her free throws. The Matadors then went on a 5-0 run capped by Gildersleeve’s fourth three-pointer of the night to tie the game at 66. The Gauchos pulled ahead 71-68 with a minute and a half to go before freshman guard Jamie McCaa hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 71.

McDivitt then hit one of two free throws to pull the Gauchos ahead 72-71 with 56.4 seconds remaining. After a McCaa travel, the Gauchos got the ball back, but couldn’t put the game away after senior guard Lisa Willett rushed a shot and missed it. Senior center Lindsay Taylor and Matador senior forward Kristin Anderson fought for the rebound and tied each other up, forcing a jump ball situation. Possession went to the Matadors, setting up Gildersleeve’s miss with a second to go.

The loss was disappointing for Northridge, considering they had the eighth consecutive Big West champion Gauchos on the ropes for the entire game. The Matadors shot 44.1 percent during the first half and held a 36-35 halftime advantage on the strength of 11 points and five rebounds from sophomore forward Ofa Tulikihihifo.

Tulikihihifo, last season’s Big West Conference Freshman of the Year, tormented the Gauchos all night long and finished with a game-high 20 points to go along with eight rebounds and five assists. Tulikihihifo leads the conference in rebounding, averaging 8.6 per game, and is fifth in the conference in scoring at 13.6 points per game.

Four Gauchos finished in double digits as the team shot 45.1 percent from the field for the game and 75.9 percent from the free throw line. Junior forward Brandy Richardson tied for a game high with nine rebounds to go along with 12 points. Taylor finished with 15 points and five blocks, and McDivitt finished with 10 points in her first significant action since she suffered a concussion on Jan. 5 against Northridge.

French announced Wednesday that junior forward Autumn Nichols, out since Nov. 20 with a torn left medial collateral ligament at Texas Tech, has petitioned the NCAA for a medical redshirt. According to NCAA regulations, to be eligible for a medical redshirt a student-athlete can appear in no more than six games during the season and none past the midseason point. If Nichols’ petition is granted, she will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Nichols transferred to UCSB after playing her first two years at Cowley Community College in Arkansas City, Kansas, where she earned second-team All-NJCAA Region VI honors during the 2002-03 season. Nichols averaged 3.3 points and three rebounds per game during her three games played. Nichols had a superb debut in her first game as a Gaucho, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in a 82-44 UCSB win over the University of San Diego in the first game of the season.