March is so close, the Gauchos (13-8 overall, 10-2 in the Big West) can taste it.

As this dogfight of a season nears its end, the first-place UCSB women’s basketball team is back in a familiar place with a half-game lead over Idaho and Long Beach State with six season games left to play before the Big West Tournament.

“Many of our veteran players know how exciting March is; they know what it’s like to win the Big West Tournament; they know what it’s like to see your name on the screen on Selection Sunday and what it’s like to play in the NCAA tournament,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “March madness really means something to [our veterans]; it’s not something they sit at home and watch on TV.”

Last season, March resulted in the Gauchos’ ninth-straight league title, eighth-straight Big West Tournament title and culminated in UCSB’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen to face national powerhouse UCONN.

“Drawing nearer to the Big West [Tournament] is definitely getting us more excited and getting another chance to face Idaho is keeping us all a little pumped,” freshman guard Sha’Rae Gibbons said.

While some less successful franchises in the Big West may have a hard time staying motivated in the latter parts of the season, the Gauchos have plenty to look forward to.

“Some teams get worn out emotionally at the end of the year, but I think because of the experiences that many of our kids have had in the past, they start getting revved up a little bit,” French said. “They’ve experienced [March Madness] and I think they talk about it; I think it infects the freshmen, and the freshmen kind of sense that we’re almost through.”

First up on the six-game home stretch of the 2005 season is a pair of home games that will comprise Santa Barbara’s second meetings of the year with Pacific and Northridge. Northridge is the savior responsible for (14-7 overall, 9-4 Big West) toppling Idaho (tied for first at the time with UCSB) last Saturday to extend their win streak to seven straight games and put the Gauchos in sole possession of first.

It is Pacific (5-16 overall, 2-11 Big West), Mark French’s former team, that comes to the Thunderdome tonight at 7 p.m., currently in the midst of a four-game slide that puts them dead last in the standings.

“Our weaknesses the first time we played Pacific are now some of our strengths, so we look forward to playing them and taking away some of their strengths” junior guard Karena Bonds said. “Our defense is getting better and [we’re also getting better at] playing their post; their post had a really good game when we went up to Pacific.”