In a scrappy defensive battle, the Gauchos (10-7 overall, 7-1 in the Big West) outlasted Riverside (8-8 overall, 4-4 Big West) to eke out a 68-62 victory and put themselves in sole possession of first place in Big West women’s basketball play.

Santa Barbara held on tightly to a three-point lead with 28 seconds on the clock after junior forward Autumn Nichols contributed a career-high 18 points to power the UCSB triumph.

“[Riverside’s] post players played behind, so basically, there was no move necessary, and I just did what I could with them playing behind [me],” Nichols said.

The game began sluggishly in the points column as both teams combined for just two points in almost two minutes on the clock at the beginning of the game.

Nichols, however, dominated the low post to put up 12 first-half points and send the Gauchos into the locker room up by two at halftime.

“I had 33, of course — their leading scorer — so my main focus was defense because our coach always tells us, ‘Defense plays into offense;’ once the ball was in our hands, I figured there would be no problem,” Nichols said.

As the clock ticked down to the wire, two key plays helped to seal the Gauchos’ victory.

Riverside switched to a zone defense in an attempt to throw off UCSB’s rhythm of play as the Highlanders closed in on the Gauchos, setting up junior guard Karena Bonds for a deadly three that would quell the Highlander’s comeback for good.

“Karena Bonds made a huge shot; we thought we would try playing the zone for one possession to see if we could get the ball back and see if we could make the shot to change the game at that moment,” Riverside Head Coach John Margaritis said. “She made the shot; they took their time and didn’t panic.”

In the final minute of play, Riverside clung onto hope as it pulled within three points with 28 seconds left on the clock and a slight differential between the shot clock and the game clock that would force UCSB to toss up a shot before the game’s end.

Riverside did not immediately foul, but rather held back and waited for the Gauchos to take their best shot on the basket. In a fatal mistake during her only minute on the court, Highlander senior guard Holly Peterson fouled Kristen Mann around half-court after over 10 seconds had ticked off the clock to bring Mann to the line and end the Highlanders’ hope.

Santa Barbara leads the league in scoring with 71.4 points per game and the Highlanders lead the league in defense averaging a lowly 58.4 points against per game heading into last night’s matchup.

The Gauchos beat the Highlanders at their own game by failing to post a score of 74 points or greater for the first time in the last four games.

“We’ve been living by our offense; we’ve been shooting the ball really well and outscoring people, and I’ve been hoping that we could up our defensive intensity a little bit. I think we had to do that tonight,” Head Coach Mark French said.

In other Big West action last night, Idaho defeated Long Beach, who shared first place with UCSB at the beginning of the night, to give the Gauchos sole possession of the top spot in the Big West.

The Gauchos will continue their home stand as they take on Fullerton in the Thunderdome on Saturday at 7 p.m.