The UCSB women’s basketball team led for the first 17 minutes of the Big West championship game, but when the clock hit zero it was top-seeded UC Riverside that prevailed 70-67.
Sophomore guard Seyram Gbewonyo nailed a three-pointer at the 2:36 mark of the second half to give the Highlanders (21-11 overall, 12-2 in the Big West) their first lead at 65-64, but the Gauchos (19-14 overall, 10-4 in the Big West) were able to tie it back up at 67-67 with under a minute left on a trey from freshman forward Jordan Franey. Gbewonyo answered with a jumper and junior forward and tournament MVP Kemie Nkele added a free throw to push the Riverside lead to 70-69. Gaucho junior guard Chisa Ononiwu clanked a potentially game-tying shot from beyond the arc off the rim with seven seconds remaining to seal the Highlander’s second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“Coach said ‘any open look get, take it’ and I was feeling pretty good about the shot,” Ononiwu said. “I wanted to get the game-winner and spotted up, it felt good; it just didn’t roll in.”
UCSB got off to a fantastic start in the title game, scoring the contest’s first eight points including back-to-back threes from junior guard Jessica Wilson and sophomore guard Lashay Fears. Riverside quickly cut into Santa Barbara’s lead and kept it close for the majority of the first half, leading to a 32-31 Gaucho halftime advantage.
The highly anticipated post battle between Nkele and junior center Jenna Green did not let fans down, as Nkele finished with 18 points and a game-high nine rebounds, while Green tallied 21 points and pulled down seven boards. Gbewonyo lead all scorers with 23, while sophomore forward Amber Cox rounded out Riverside’s double-digit scorers with 12.
Along with Green, Wilson, Franey and Fears all netted at least ten points, but UCSB shot just 39 percent from the field. The Gauchos struggled to hit their outside shots; Wilson and Ononiwu hit a combined seven-for-25 from the floor. Green finished six-for-nine from the field, but the Highlanders prevented her from getting the ball in comfortable spots late in the game. UCR hit 63.6 percent of its shots from long range, the third highest in Big West Tournament history.
“[Riverside] had a lot more pressure on them this time and they handled it well,” Head Coach Mark French said. “We got off to a great start and they rebounded well, steadied the ship and came back and did what they needed to do.”
The loss was Santa Barbara’s third of the season at the hands of UC Riverside, but UCSB’s season continued in the postseason National Invitation Tournament. The Gauchos went on the road to defeat the University of San Diego 75-63 in the first round, before falling to Oregon for the second time this season 70-54.