The Big West title is on the line tonight, when the Gaucho women’s basketball team takes on UC Riverside. The only school that has played foil to UCSB over the last few years in what has otherwise been a one-team conference, the Highlanders are hoping to take the league lead with a win. The Gauchos, meanwhile, can clinch the top conference seed and regular-season title with a victory of their own.

“It has to be the best game all year,” Santa Barbara senior guard Whitney Warren said. She has a point. While UCSB won the first meeting at the Thunderdome 47-40 (the game was not as close as the score), this time the Highlanders have home court advantage. Judging by the teams’ season performances, that is saying something.

Both squads boast identical records at 18-9, 13-1 in conference. The teams are a combined 22-2 at home, but only 14-16 on the road or at a neutral site. In fact, playing in Riverside the Highlanders have yet to lose this season with a perfect 9-0 mark. That figure will be seriously tested Thursday.

“They’re a great team,” UCSB Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. As for the conference title implications: “No motivation needed.”

Playing Riverside is motivation enough, as the five Gaucho seniors remember all too clearly the two consecutive years when the Highlanders stole their NCAA bid by winning the Big West Tournament. In all likelihood, the teams might meet up again there next week in the final, but tonight’s game has a lot riding on it as well.

Riverside is led by senior center Kemie Nkele, who averages an astonishing 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. She also leads the team in blocks, free throw percentage (among players who have had at least 10 attempts) and made three pointers. However, in the first meeting between the two teams, a brilliant defensive performance by Gaucho senior center Jenna Green held Nkele to just 11 points on 4-13 shooting.

Green will be the key to stopping Nkele this time around as well, and Nkele will undoubtedly have a tough time defending Green. The matchup might well make or break the game. Green averages 11.5 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game, but it is her lockdown defense that separates her the most. She even averages over two blocks per game.

The Highlanders will need to contain Green — as well as sharp-shooting guard Lauren Pedersen and a deep array of other players — in order to win, but they feel confident in their abilities.

“They do what they do,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think they have the same philosophy of these other teams that ‘We have to change to play UCSB.’

“They think they’re right where they need to be to beat us.”

The confidence is not exclusive to UCR though. Gottlieb, who is on the cusp of earning a conference title in her first season as head coach, continued to extol the virtues of her own team.

“We match up with them as well as anyone does,” she said. “We’re excited to show that we’ve improved since January.”

Whatever the result, it should be a great game. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. in Riverside.