UC Riverside was the preseason pick to take home the Big West title. Defending champion UCSB felt disrespected. Sunday afternoon, in what may well have been a preview of the Big West Championship, the Gauchos did something about it.
In a game that was hardly as close as its score, a smothering defense and big-time efforts from Lauren Pedersen and Jenna propelled Santa Barbara to a 47-40 victory over the Highlanders.
“I think championship teams — and that’s what we’re working toward becoming — are teams that can win any which way,” Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Our calling card is always going to be our defense. If you’ve got to win a game gritting it out down the end, that’s what I expect to do.”
Santa Barbara got off to a hot start, using a 9-0 run to jump out to a 17-4 lead. However, UCR went on an 8-1 run of its own immediately after, narrowing the Gaucho lead to six.
Senior guard Lauren Pedersen put an end to Riverside’s streak by nailing two three-pointers in just over a minute, giving the Gauchos a double-digit lead and killing the Highlanders’ momentum. Pedersen was on fire in the first half, totaling eighteen points on her way to a game-high 21-point effort.
“In big games, players make plays,” Gottlieb said of Pedersen. “She’s an unbelievable shooter and an even better player, so when the shots fall it kind of takes our team to a different level.”
At the half the Gauchos led by a score of 29-18, and that margin would remain fairly constant for the remainder of the game. The way UCSB kept its lead, however, would change dramatically.
After allowing Pedersen to rampage through the first half, Riverside coach John Margaritis shifted his defensive strategy in the second frame to put more pressure on the guard. While the change did limit Pedersen to only three second-half points (a thigh injury sustained midway through the half might have had a lot to do with that as well), senior forward Jenna Green was more than capable of stepping up.
Green asserted herself throughout the second half, having just about every possession routed through her. She muscled her way to a double-double, finishing with ten points, ten rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
“I think [that happens] when you have a shooter get 18 points in the first half,” Gottlieb said. “The second half they really started pressuring our guards more and I said to her ‘just be a target at every point.’ She came up really big.”
While UCSB controlled most of the contest, there was some drama late as the Gauchos were trying to close the game. With a 45-38 lead and just over a minute on the clock, Pedersen appeared to have iced the game with a basket and a foul. The referee ended up waving off the basket, saying the shot occurred too late after the foul, and Pedersen was instead awarded a trip to the line for a one-and-one. She missed the front end and the Highlanders rebounded, leaving the margin at seven points. One quick trip down the court and a couple of free throws later, UCR had closed to five.
With just 57 seconds left and down by five points, Riverside was forced to foul Green on the Gauchos’ next possession. Green went to the line for a one-and-one with 32.5 remaining, needing to make both to put the nail in UCR’s coffin. Her first shot hit the front iron, but eventually rattled its way home. The second, game-clinching free throw was a swish. The 47-40 score would hold, and Santa Barbara came away with a big victory.
With the win, UCSB improves to 6-6 on the season (2-0 Big West), and 6-1 in the Thunderdome. The Highlanders drop to 5-9 and 1-1 in conference.
“At the end of the day, we know that we need to come out and play the kind of basketball that’s going to make us winners,” Gottlieb said. The Gauchos certainly did that on Sunday, and now look to be the favorite in the Big West race.