In one of their closest victories of the year, UCSB edged Cal State Fullerton 60-59 in double overtime just weeks ago. Now on a three-game skid, the Gauchos (8-16 overall, 5-7 in Big West) look to put their 34-game win streak against the Titans (12-14, 6-6) yet again this Saturday at the Thunderdome. With consecutive close losses to UC Davis, UC Riverside and Long Beach State still fresh in their minds, all Santa Barbara wants is to win after turning in three solid performances for most of the game before watching their last three opponents outlast them at the final whistle.
“No matter what we do during [practice], we have to stay poised at the end of the game,” senior Ariana Gnekow said. “If we bring the effort and the energy, we really just need to stay focused for 40 minutes. We can’t be playing a great game for 35 minutes and just break down. Hopefully it won’t be as close as last time.”
If UCSB is to get a repeat result against the Titans, they will need not just a solid 40-minute effort, but a combination of successes in areas where thus far have been only mistakes. Somehow, Santa Barbara needs to put together a game in which they stop shooting themselves in the foot to escape the infamy of a bottom-four Big West Tournament seed. If it isn’t their conference-worst 21.5 turnovers per game that turns a 13 point lead into a loss (see Long Beach State), it’s their 63.3 percent team free-throw percentage (a la UC Davis). If it isn’t their league-low offense that has only produced an average of 58.1 points per game, it’s their average of just 3.4 three-point buckets made per game while the rest of the conference is sinking five or more.
UCSB needs to perfect the entry pass so junior center Mekia Valentine can make her game-changing presence felt down low in addition to opening up the arc for a perimeter offense to be established. Valentine, who averages a team-high 12.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, needs to be utilized even more as part of the offense instead of forcing the Wake Forest transfer to generate her looks off put-backs. An inside-outside game between Valentine and sophomore guard Emilie Johnson — who also averages 12.9 points per game — would be fairly potent in a conference which lacks teams with the personnel to cover that type of look.
It’s a break for the Gauchos that Fullerton isn’t quite one of those teams, but still the Titans provide an athletic look that has kept them in games where they haven’t been able to match up down low. At 5’10”, sophomore guard Megan Richardson has caused havoc around the perimeter in conference play, exploiting her size advantage for a team-high 15.3 points per game coupled with 69 assists. In fact, it’s the backcourt where Fullerton shines, with their top-six scores all playing the outside positions.
Considering the 49-37 rebounding edge UCSB held over the Titans the last time these two teams met back in January, look for Santa Barbara to force the issue down low and keep their composure down the stretch with a full week of preparation in them. If they can, look for Santa Barbara to stretch their win streak over the blue and orange to 35 and an end to that three game losing streak as they jostle for Big West Tournament seeding.