The UCSB women’s basketball team bookended a disappointing Winter Break with a 54-48 comeback victory over conference-rival UC Irvine last Saturday at the Thunderdome to begin conference play. The Gauchos (4-9 overall, 1-0 in the Big West) led by eight at the half, but found themselves down eight with just over six minutes to play due to expert perimeter shooting by the Anteaters (3-10, 0-1). From that point on, UCSB turned up their trapping defense to fuel an 11-0 run that took back the lead for good. Junior forward Mekia Valentine had another huge game defensively for Santa Barbara, finally breaking the program’s single-game block record with 11 denials.

“It’s just such a calming factor to have [Valentine] in the paint,” said senior forward Jordan Franey. “She’s just an absolute rock for us. She comes up big for us at the end of games, just really incredible.”

From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Gaucho’s conference opener seemed to act as a microcosm for their entire preseason, highlighting key areas of alarm such as turnovers, weak entry passes, lack of outside scoring threats and an anemic offense in general. Fortunately for the home team, Irvine shared Santa Barbara’s turnover malady, an illness that was confirmed Saturday by the Thunderdome’s 1153 onlookers. UCSB and UCI combined for 51 turnovers — 25 committed by the Gauchos — which partially explains the low final score. Neither team was able to break into double-digits until senior guard Chris Spencer was fouled on a three-point opportunity with 9:24 remaining in the opening half. Spencer sunk all three, putting UCSB up 12-8. The Wisconsin transfer provided the offensive spark that the Gauchos needed to separate themselves from the visitors, finishing with eight points off the bench, all of which came in the first half.

In the second period however, Irvine began making the threes they had taken but missed in the preceding half, shooting 4-7 from downtown after intermission to erase the Gaucho’s solid advantage. Sophomore forward Mikah Maly-Karros did most of the damage on behalf of UCI, finishing with a game-high 20 points and 17 rebounds. Junior guard Jade Smith-Williams also contributed three triples to the second-half burst which put Santa Barbara on the ropes. Though their opponent’s streaky shooting proved problematic, the home team needed to look no further than their shoddy ball-handling when searching for the source of their collapse. Turnovers, a statistic that UCSB and UCI share the dubious honor of leading the conference in, looked again to spell defeat.

“Turnovers overall have been the story of our lives,” said Franey. “We have really struggled with turnovers every game. As a team, we know that turnovers have been the key to our losses. Now we just have to not do that in order to win.”

Down 45-37 at the 6:08 mark, UCSB turned up their trapping defense and made critical free throws down the stretch to earn the conference opening win. Irvine simply could not continue their stellar shooting with the increased perimeter pressure, resulting in more turnovers by the Anteaters, who ended the game with 26 giveaways. Though ugly to watch at times, the win gives UCSB their first victory in five games, suffering four consecutive defeats to UCLA, Pepperdine, Idaho and Gonzaga over Winter Break.