With lofty expectations set for the upcoming season, the UCSB Women’s Basketball team got things started off right with a win over Westmont College in an exhibition game at the Thunderdome Wednesday night. As preseason favorites to repeat as Big West champions, the Gauchos overcame a second half deficit and a late-game struggle to persevere, beating Westmont 63-54. Entering the game, UCSB knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I expected it would be a game coming in,” reigning Big West Coach of the Year Lindsay Gottlieb said. “We were down one at the half last year. They have great kids coming back.”

For most of the first half, the two teams battled back and forth, with both struggling to get a rhythm offensively. The turning point of the first half came with about two minutes left, when Coach Gottlieb called a timeout. Following the timeout, the Gauchos attacked offensively, going on a 9-0 run to enter the locker room with a 14-point lead.

Early in the second half, Santa Barbara showed signs of trouble maintaining their lead. Westmont utilized their 3-point shooting to go on a 19-3 run, taking the lead with 12 minutes remaining.

“We had consecutive defensive lapses,” Gottlieb said. “Westmont knocked down shots, and we expect shooters to make shots when they’re open.”

The two teams battled back and forth, but Westmont continued its good shooting from beyond the arc to stretch the lead to seven with 9:30 remaining. UCSB fought back and turned it up defensively, eventually regaining the lead with 5:30 left in the game. This time, Santa Barbara protected the lead until the end of regulation.

Offensively, the Gauchos were led by sophomore point guard Emilie Johnson and junior forward/center Mekia Valentine. Valentine had a monster game, finishing with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks, on 12 of 17 shooting in only 23 minutes. This was Valentine’s first game in a UCSB uniform, as she was forced to sit out last season after transferring from Wake Forest.

“This is right where I’m supposed to be,” Valentine said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it, and it was good to end it on a good note.”

Many of those points came on assists from Johnson, who played all 40 minutes and finished with 15 points and seven assists.

“That relationship is developing,” Gottlieb said of the pair. “They’ve worked on [that relationship] and it was fun to see in action tonight.”

Senior guard Meagan Williams had six points, six assists and three rebounds while freshman forward Sweets Underwood had five points and nine rebounds. Additionally, senior guard/forward Jordan Franey, an All-Big West preseason team selection, added eight rebounds.

Although this was only an exhibition game and will not count toward their record, the Gauchos showed that they could play from behind in a close game and come through. UCSB has the added pressure of replacing five players, including four starters, from last year’s squad that finished 22-10 overall, and 15-1 in the Big West, repeating as league champions.

The Gauchos will officially open their season at home on Friday, Nov. 13 at 7 pm, when they host Fresno State. With high expectations and goals in mind, Santa Barbara will look to get off to a solid start to the season.