Owning a commanding 13-point advantage with 6:24 remaining in regulation, there seemed little doubt that the UCSB women’s basketball team was due to break their two-game conference skid, but homesteading Long Beach State had other plans. The 49ers (11-13 overall, 7-4 in Big West) finally found the hot shooting that proved so deadly during their previous 78-63 romp over Santa Barbara (8-16, 5-7) to spark a 21-8 run to close out the contest — besting the Gauchos 65-62 for the regular season sweep.
“It was a really tough game,” senior guard Ariana Gnekow said. “We just gave it away. It came down to possessions at the end of the game. We gave up a lot of threes, and it was only in the last five minutes that they killed us.”
Coming into Saturday’s encounter, UCSB looked to stymie Long Beach offensively from the get-go, and for the most part did just that. LBSU shot only 32 percent from the field on 8-25 first-half shooting, but still managed 4-8 from beyond the arc. The Gauchos fared a little better at 34.5 percent, but made 7-10 from the charity stripe compared to the goose eggs laid by Long Beach in that column. Tied 20-20 with time winding down in the first, UCSB closed the half on a 9-0 run fueled by seven of junior center Mekia Valentine’s 18 points to enter the locker rooms up 29-20.
“[Valentine]’s been doing really well,” Gnekow said. “She’s been really solid for us. Her rebounding has kept us in close games.”
While all 787 seated in Walter Pyramid expected the home team to emerge out of the intermission ready to blow UCSB off the court, for the most part the Gauchos weathered the early storm. While senior guard Karina Figueroa did score the majority of her game-high 24 points after halftime and as a team the 49ers shot a much-improved 40.6 percent from the floor — including going 7-16 from the three — Santa Barbara still maintained a 13-point lead thanks to a dominating performance on the glass. UCSB outscored its opponents 20-6 on second chance points, held a 49-28 rebounding advantage and controlled the offensive rebounding battle 17-8. Valentine finished with a game-high 12 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the year with four other Gauchos pulling down seven or more boards.
“What saved us was that we were getting [offensive] boards,” Gnekow said. “Our outside shooting was pretty bad, but everyone kept getting rebounds and then getting layups or something.”
Then, at the 6:24 mark (after senior forward Jordan Franey earned a bucket to put Santa Barbara up 13), everything went wrong for the visitors. Long Beach turned on the aggression offensively, exploding for a deciding 21-8 run to end the game. Finally sinking the threes that went begging earlier, the 49ers began to erode the Gaucho edge until the scored stood at 58-53 with 3:34 remaining. Following a steal that she herself initiated, junior guard Melanie Lisnock drained a pair of back-to-back threes to give the home team the 59-58 lead, their first since the game’s early stages. Six consecutively made free-throws dictated the event’s remainder as the visitors never led again, losing 65-62 for Santa Barbara’s third-straight conference loss.
UCSB has a week off to consider the matter before they engage Cal State Fullerton for a rematch this Saturday at the Thunderdome. In their previous meeting, the Gauchos held on in double overtime 60-59. As always, admission for students is free.