After trailing by eight early in the second half, the UCSB women’s basketball team turned on the defensive pressure and battled back for a hotly contested 57-55 victory over UC Irvine last night at the Bren Events Center. Winners of their last four, the Gauchos (12-16 overall, 9-7 in the Big West) held UCI (9-19, 6-9) to only 24 percent from the floor in a decisive second period, keeping their dreams of a first-round bye in the upcoming Big West Tournament alive.

“It means a lot to us to be playing so well at the end of the year,” senior guard Chris Spencer said. “I think we’re focused right now on trying to peak at the right time at the end of the year. … Hopefully we can take this momentum into the tournament.”

Coming off their most complete performance this year in an 85-70 shellacking of Cal Poly, UCSB could have been in store for a letdown against a weaker Anteater squad, but from tip-off it was clear that “letdown” was to be omitted from the night’s vocabulary.

Santa Barbara bull-rushed the home team right from the outset, opening the contest on a 9-0 run fueled by five of senior guard Ariana Gnekow’s career-high tying 12 points. After a judiciously taken timeout by Irvine Head Coach Molly Goodenbour, the Anteaters took off on a 14-2 run of their own, with sophomore forward Mikah Maly-Karros responsible for most of the damage. Maly-Karros, who missed UCI’s first eight games due to transfer rules, finished with a game-high 18 points and 10 boards for the night’s only double-double.

After some more back and forth, the two schools found themselves deadlocked at 31-31, the second of eight ties during the match, with 2:22 left before halftime. Maly-Karros obliged with the last four points of the half, giving Irvine the 35-31 advantage at intermission despite watching the visitors shoot 50 percent from the floor in the opening stanza.

“We just came out and were really aggressive,” Spencer said. “[Gnekow] hit some big shots. We knew they were going to pressure us a lot, so we tried to use that against them.”

Finding itself down 41-33 early in the second half after a pair of Anteater treys, UCSB utilized a 9-0 run to briefly take back the lead, a run capped by sophomore guard Emilie Johnson’s contested jumper. Johnson led the Gauchos with 15 points, 10 of which came in the second half. Neither team seemed to be able to pull away from the other even as time wore down. UCSB and UCI found themselves equal at 55-55 with 1:28 to play when senior guard Rebecca Maessen fouled out after contesting Spencer in the act of shooting. The senior made both from the charity stripe, then partially blocked junior guard Jade Smith-Williams’ layup at the other end to seal the 57-55 Gaucho victory.

“We started mixing up our defenses [in the second half],” Spencer said. “We utilized both man and zone, and I think our zone defense really shook them up and made them turn it over.”

UCSB still has a chance for the fourth seed in next week’s Big West Tournament if Long Beach State loses to UC Riverside this Saturday.