It’s always hardest to say goodbye. Having won two games straight, the UCSB women’s basketball team returns to the Thunderdome Saturday night to try to upend conference leader Cal Poly, as well as bid farewell to a quintet of key seniors. Guards Meagan Williams, Chris Spencer and Ariana Gnekow, along with forwards Jordan Franey and Jessie Goble will be honored before the tip-off of a game that needs to be won if the Gauchos (10-16 overall, 7-7 in Big West) are aiming for anything higher than a fifth seed in March’s Big West Tournament.

“It’s kind of unreal,” senior Ariana Gnekow said. “It just went by so fast, I can’t believe [the last home game is] already here. I think it’s going to be a great game.”

While the renewal of the central-coast rivalry is always sure to bring some manner of fireworks regardless of the sport, this weekend meeting between the Gauchos and Mustangs (17-8, 10-3) is shaping up akin to an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Cal Poly’s league-leading scoring offense has averaged 72.6 points per game, 6.2 points higher than their opponent’s average and a full four points higher than sharpshooting Long Beach State at #2. Contrast that with a UCSB defense that allows only 60.5 points per game, a mark that ranks stingiest in conference, and something has to give. History shows it might be the latter school, as the last time the two squads butted heads back in January, Cal Poly scored a narrow 67-62 victory. Interestingly, Santa Barbara shot 55.6 percent for the game, including a 65 percent second half that ranks as one of their best shooting performances this year. With that kind of success, it seemed unimaginable to chalk that one down as a loss, but 24 turnovers and a 15-7 Mustang edge on the offensive boards say otherwise. If UCSB can take care of the ball while at the same time limiting Poly’s exposure on the glass, a Senior Day upset could very well be in the cards.

“We want to play really intensely,” Gnekow said. “We’ve been doing really well on defense, so as long as we don’t have any defensive breakdowns like the first time we played them, we just need to score more than they do.”

While Saturday will be about the seniors, look for a pair of junior centers in Cal Poly’s Kristina Santiago and Gaucho Mekia Valentine to steal the spotlight. Valentine, who is recovering from an illness that kept her out of Wednesday’s romp over Northridge, was a non-factor against Cal Poly earlier in the year. The Wake Forest transfer recorded as many turnovers as she did points (four) as foul trouble precluded any success that might have otherwise blossomed. Most of those fouls were garnered attempting to guard Santiago, whose 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds per game rank first and second respectively in conference. Santiago finished with 15 points and six rebounds last time out, keeping the Gauchos focused on the paint while senior guard Brittany Lange went 4-8 from beyond the arc, finishing with a team-high 16.

As for the Gaucho seniors, look for major contributions from Williams and Spencer from the outside if UCSB has any chance of developing an inside threat. Williams had one of her best games in Santa Barbara blue and gold this year against the Mustangs, making 10-14 from the floor for a game-high 23 points. Spencer has posted double figures in four of her last six conference games, including a season-high 16 earlier this week against CSUN. Gnekow and Franey look to help Valentine on the boards as the two seniors rank second and third respectively on the team in those categories. Goble, will most likely start at the fifth spot.

UCSB and Cal Poly go at it starting at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Thunderdome, with Senior Day farewells set to commence before tip-off. As always, admission for students
is free.