With the stage set for a Utah State upset, the Gauchos rose above injuries, sickness and fatigue to stay perfect in league.
Things looked grim as a diminished, seven-player UCSB roster stepped onto the court. But when the final buzzer rang, senior guard Mia Fisher had recorded a career-high 24 points, and the ailing Gauchos had crushed their opponents 61-41.
“They all really, really sucked it up; it was a great display of Gaucho heart,” Head Coach Mark French said.
Despite vomiting minutes before tip-off and intermittently throughout the game, six-game starter junior guard Karena Bonds gave UCSB 31 hard minutes of play and kept her team from dropping to six players.
Senior forward Kate Bauman hobbled with a leg injury in the second half of play, but would return and contribute a career-tying 14 points.
“The exciting thing for me was to watch those seven play that way,” French said. “[The difference wasn’t] a lot of strategy, just a lot of heart by seven great women.”
UCSB scored the first eight points of the game and never looked back, opening up a 20-point margin in the second half.
The momentum of the game seemed counterintuitive, as the team with only two subs (and not all of them healthy) was more energetic and much more productive in the latter minutes of the game. It was as if Utah State was the outnumbered team trying helplessly to catch the Gauchos.
“I think fatigue played a factor, but I don’t think it was our main focus,” Bauman said. “We didn’t really have the option to think of ourselves as tired; we didn’t have that luxury.”
Freshman guard Sha’Rae Gibbons made her first start of the year, amidst all of the drama surrounding Wednesday’s suspensions, and added four points in 36 minutes.
The only other player on the court for either side who played that long was Gibbons’ polar opposite: the seasoned veteran Mia Fisher.
“I just looked at [this game] as a good opportunity to go out and play a lot, and not just a couple of minutes,” Gibbons said. “I was able to get a good wind in up and down the court, and kind of get in the groove of playing with some of my teammates, especially the ones that I haven’t played with a lot.”
Even with their last place finish in the Big West last year and a mediocre preseason record, Utah State looked dangerous heading into Thursday’s game.
The Aggies were coming off a heartbreaking one-point loss to Gaucho-rival Idaho in their season opener, and licking their chops with all the Santa Barbara injuries and suspensions. Utah State looked like it might be the team to break UCSB’s 28-game Big West home win streak.
“When one team smells blood [Utah State], it means the other team [UCSB] is going to fight for their life,” Utah State Head Coach Raegan Pebley said. “The one who will win that fight is whoever stays with the most consistent fight – and they were more consistent [tonight].”
Surprisingly, Utah State all-star and 2004 Big West Honorable Mention Ali Aird was not a factor in Wednesday’s game after she found herself in early foul trouble and contributed only four points in 13 minutes.
In the absence of senior forwards Kristen Mann and Brandy Richardson, the Gaucho bench had enormous shoes to fill, but proved to be comparable Big West competitors, refusing to drop a game to Utah no matter what situation they faced.
“It was difficult [playing with a new, inexperienced cast of players], because you don’t want to get out of your game,” Fisher said. “But, at the same time, I also wanted to step up.”