The UCSB women’s basketball team found out how unlucky 13 can be after its 62-54 loss to UC Riverside Saturday.
The Highlanders (18-10 overall, 12-2 in the Big West) ended Santa Barbara’s (15-12, 8-4 Big West) 12-year reign atop the Big West en route to picking up a conference title of its own, just one year after winning the Big West Tournament.
“Obviously we hate to see our string of conference championships snapped,” Head Coach Mark French said. “But Riverside was a very, very worthy opponent. They were the defending tournament champions coming into this season. They did what they had to do, played tremendous defense and earned this championship. My hat goes off to them.”
In a game that had the Gauchos evenly matched with the Highlanders in most statistics, the outcome was decided by the most important stat of all: shooting. Santa Barbara’s defense kept Riverside’s offense from gaining much of a rhythm, and UCR shot 41.8 percent in the match, along with a dismal 23.1 percent from beyond the arc. However, the Gauchos shot an abysmal 34 percent in the game, along with 26.7 percent from three-point land. Santa Barbara made 17 field goals out of 50 attempts, its lowest total of the season.
“We defended them well; they didn’t put up very many points,” French said. “But they have a defensive system that is giving us fits.”
Sophomore guard LaShay Fears opened up the scoring with a jumper at the top of the key for two of her team-high 15 points. The Highlanders took command of the next 12 minutes, and scored 24 of the next 28 to stretch out a 24-6 lead, their largest of the match. However, with eight minutes to go, the Gauchos settled down and began to make their shots while shutting down the Riverside offense with their trademark full-court press. Santa Barbara quickly climbed back into the game with a 23-8 run to go into the half trailing 32-29.
“We made a great comeback. We had the buildup and the momentum in our favor,” French said. “They came back in the second half, settled down, and they are a darn good basketball team.”
Santa Barbara started the second half off as slow as the first, and Riverside stretched its lead out to 48-38 with 10 minutes to go. In the latter portion of the half the Gauchos picked up speed. Fears threw down five points that were followed by a three-point play from junior guard Chisa Ononiwu. Riverside’s leading scorer, forward Kemie Nkele, closed out the game with six clutch points in the final few minutes to ice the victory. Nkele scored 17 of Riverside’s 30 second-half points for a total of 22 points in the game.
Fears was the only Gaucho to score in double-digits in the match, and was followed by Ononiwu and freshman forward Jordan Franey who had nine apiece.
The Gauchos still have two games left in the season to get ready for the Big West Tournament. Despite the loss of the regular season title, there is still another championship up for grabs that Santa Barbara will certainly be in contention for.
“Riverside was ranked fifth in the Big West and they ended up winning it,” sophomore guard Whitney Warren said. “Our confidence level can’t come from the rank of the team we are playing. It has to come from us, and we have to show up on game day.”