With just four games remaining in Big West Conference play, the UCSB women’s basketball team told the 49ers, the fans in the Thunderdome and everyone who watched on FSN West 2 that they are the champs until someone knocks them off.

The 10-time defending Big West Conference champion Gauchos (12-11 overall, 7-3 in the Big West) defeated Long Beach State (16-8 overall, 9-3 Big West) 46-43 Saturday evening in a gritty defensive contest. The victory tied the two teams in the loss column for first place in the conference.

“Judging by our first two games with Long Beach State, if we meet them in the Big West Tournament it should be a humdinger,” Head Coach Mark French said. “In my opinion that game was like a 1-0 pitchers duel. If you don’t appreciate good defense, then you probably thought that was the most boring game you ever saw.”

Santa Barbara never trailed against the first-place 49ers. It started the game off by opening a 17-7 point lead, capped with a three-pointer from freshman guard Ana Onaindia that prompted Long Beach Head Coach Mary Hegarty to call a timeout. The Gauchos stymied all but the Big West’s leading scorer – senior guard Crystal McCutcheon – who scored 11 of Long Beach’s 20 first half points while her team shot an abysmal 25.9 percent from the floor before heading into the locker rooms down 10. McCutcheon finished the game with a game high 17.

“The two things we wanted to do were control the boards, against this team that leads the Big West in rebounds and I thought we did a good job of that in the first half,” French said. “And we wanted to keep them off balance. … Our defense and our rebounding were solid.”

Long Beach outperformed Santa Barbara in the second half with senior forward Fernanda Santos leading the way with all 13 of her points coming in the second half. Santos had an impressive all-around game with 15 rebounds, a block and five steals while playing all forty minutes for the 49ers. However, it was senior forward Autumn Nichols who stepped up for the Gauchos while playing through back pain.

“Part of it is just feeling better,” Nichols said. “I think a major part of it was that we were playing the 49ers, and going for [Santa Barbara’s] 11th conference championship.”

With her team shooting just 31 percent on the night, Nichols was a lone beacon of consistency, connecting on five of seven from the floor while pulling down eight rebounds. Nichols’ play on both ends of the floor helped secure the victory. In the final stretch of the game she blocked a shot, made a running hook and assisted sophomore center Jenna Green on the final bucket of the game that sealed the victory. Green led her team with 16 points, but had only three rebounds and shot 7-16 on mostly close shots.

Saturday’s win snapped a three-game losing streak that culminated in an 82-69 embarrassment at the hands of UC Irvine (9-16 overall, 7-6 Big West) last Thursday in the Thunderdome. Apparently the coaches were able to properly motivate their players for Saturday’s game.

“The coaches let us know that if we are going to play like champions then we need to practice like champions,” senior guard Karena Bonds said.

Bonds finished the game with seven points and one of Santa Barbara’s two three pointers made. The 2-16 performance marks the fourth game in a row in which Santa Barbara missed 14 or more three-pointers.