With only six Big West Conference games remaining for the UCSB women’s basketball team, every contest becomes crucial. The second-place Gauchos (11-20 overall, 6-2 in the Big West) play host to fifth-place Irvine in the Thunderdome tonight at 7.

The Gauchos have managed to keep afloat in the conference standings despite being plagued by injuries. Sitting out tonight’s contest will be sophomore forward/center Jenna Green and freshman forward Shantel Thomas. Senior forward Autumn Nichols will likely sit out as well while she still recovers from a back injury suffered earlier in the season when a car hit her. Despite the injuries, Head Coach Mark French expects his team to come out strong.

“I’m expecting them to suck it up and know that we are missing some of our post players,” French said. “I’m expecting that they know they’ll have to go out there and play tough defense and bring a lot of energy.”

Santa Barbara defeated Irvine (7-16 overall, 5-6 Big West) 71-60 when the two faced each other in Irvine Jan. 9, but this is a different Anteater team. Irvine enters the Thunderdome riding a three-game Big West winning streak. Junior guard Angie Ned leads this resurgence, averaging 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in Irvine’s past two games – good enough to earn her Big West Player of the Week accolades.

“We don’t expect to see the same team we saw in Irvine,” French said. “They’re hot right now, coming off of, I think, a three-game winning streak. I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to come in here and get a win in the Thunderdome.”

The contest will be the first time the Gauchos have played in front of a friendly crowd since the Jan. 21 loss to Cal Poly. French and the Gauchos will have a chance to sleep in their own beds and eat their own cooking for a change while hoping to use their home-court advantage to the fullest.

“It’s always nice to be back in Santa Barbara,” French said. “And it’s especially nice to come back to the Thunderdome.”

With Green out, a lot of pressure will fall on the shoulders of sophomore center Kat Suderman. Suderman poured in 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds the last time Santa Barbara faced Irvine.

“I’m expecting that Kat and [freshman guard/forward Whitney Warren] will stay out of foul trouble for us,” French said. “That will come in real handy if they can do that.”

Warren will see an extended amount of playing time at the power forward spot, which is not her usual position. The 5’8″ guard from Lawndale, Calif., played four games earlier in the season when the Gauchos were short due to injuries and reprised her role at power forward during last Saturday’s loss to Davis (15-9 overall) where she pulled down 10 boards coming off the bench.

“Defensively, it’s not that much of an adjustment for her,” French said. “Offensively, it’s a big change, but I think she’s done well so far.”

The Gauchos will try to continue a four-game conference winning streak by focusing on playing their game and not worrying about Saturday’s contest against first-place Long Beach (15-7 overall, 8-2 Big West).