Winner of five in a row, the #5 seeded UCSB women’s basketball team continued its hot streak well into the 2009-10 Big West Tournament with blowout wins over #8 Pacific and #4 Long Beach State, but in the end ran out of gas against #1 UC Davis in a 63-53 semi-final loss at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The Aggies (21-11 overall, 12-4 in Big West) had edged the Gauchos (15-17, 9-7) twice during the regular season, a trend that continued in the postseason with Head Coach Sandy Simpson’s “Twilight Zone” defense yet again stymieing the Santa Barbara attack. UCSB’s loss in the semifinals was the program’s worst postseason finish since 1996 when UCSB was eliminated in the third round, as well.

“We expected the pressure as we played them throughout the season, so we knew what to expect,” sophomore guard Emilie Johnson said. “We just started to attack them back and tried not to be rattled by their pressure. It’s easier said than done, but we just have to learn from this.”

Due to Long Beach State’s (17-19, 9-7) upset of eventual Big West Tournament Champion UC Riverside (17-16, 11-5) in their regular season finale, Santa Barbara was saddled with the tournament’s fifth seed and a Wednesday date with a Pacific squad (6-23, 4-12) the Gauchos had already registered two wins against. In the tournament’s opening game, UCSB controlled the pace from start to finish, overcoming a nervous opening to turn a 2-5 deficit into a 24-7 lead with 7:59 remaining in the first half. The Tigers simply did not have an answer down low for junior center Mekia Valentine, who contributed mightily to the 20-6 advantage UCSB had in points in the paint during the first half. While Pacific started to make baskets toward the end of the half, they never got closer than their 15-point 40-25 halftime deficit. UCSB shot 47 percent in the first half despite only making one of their nine threes, with Valentine already having posted 16 points and eight rebounds.

“I thought Santa Barbara played pretty well,” Pacific Head Coach Lynne Roberts said. “We didn’t take care of the ball very well, so give credit to their defense.”

While the Tigers did hold Valentine to only four second-half points, senior guard Meagan Williams more than picked up the offensive slack. Scoring only 10 in the opening period, Williams exploded for 14 more to finish with a game-high 24, most of which came on the fast break. Santa Barbara was all over the passing lanes, earning an absurd 15 steals, with Williams frequently cashing in at the other end.

Though she was contained offensively in the second half, Valentine finished with 20 points, 13 boards and eight blocks, just a pair of blocks shy of an elusive triple-double. Johnson finished with 12 points, but was off the mark for most of the night, needing 16 shots to scratch the points together. A UCSB team firing on all cylinders combined with Pacific’s discouraging 31 percent shooting for the game finalized the score at 82-54, eliminating the Tigers while earning the Gauchos a quarterfinal date with Long Beach State.

“We wanted to attack the basket, get to the rim and control the boards and we did that,” Head Coach Lindsey Gottlieb said. Our starters dominated at both ends of the floor … we were able to play a lot of our players and that can help you in a tournament.”

While UCSB was expected to blow out Pacific on Wednesday, the same result was not the general prediction for Thursday’s match against a 49er squad that had beaten the Gauchos twice in the regular season. So much for predictions: While LBSU did jump out to an early 6-2 lead after two trademark treys, Santa Barbara began to answer down low until at last, with the game tied at 19-19 at the 8:19 mark, Williams sunk a jumper that gave the Gauchos a two point edge they would not relinquish. UCSB outscored a suddenly cold 49er offense 14-8 to end the half up 33-27. Williams, who had picked up right where she had left off against Pacific, already had 12 points, three rebounds and three steals while Karina Figueroa, Long Beach’s senior star point guard, was held to just seven points on 25 percent shooting.

Like Pacific before them, LBSU simply had no answer for the Gauchos’ one-two punch of Valentine on the inside and Williams on the outside as the Gauchos rolled through the second half largely unchallenged helped by the fact that the 49er shots still did not want to fall. After Johnson — who finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four assists — drained a triple at the 17:02 mark in the second half to make it 40-29 UCSB, Long Beach never got the deficit to single digits again. In one of their most complete halves of the year, Santa Barbara held the black and gold to only 19 percent shooting in the final period while earning a 51 percent success rate themselves. Williams finished with a game-high 22 points, her second consecutive 20 plus point game, while Valentine — who was held scoreless in the second half — contributed another double-double with 11 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks. With Figueroa a non-factor, UCSB took the quarterfinal contest going away, routing the 49ers 73-50 to advance to the semifinals.

“We definitely wanted a second chance against Long Beach State,” Valentine said. “We talked about breaking the game into four quarters and once we got the lead, we stuck with it. The taste of that loss during the season didn’t leave our mouth.”

Now winners of seven in a row, UCSB looked to keep the run going against Davis, but a veteran, well-rested Aggie squad that had studied the Gauchos’ two previous games paid no heed. Immediately, UCD made their presence felt from beyond the arc, shooting 50 percent from downtown in the first half with a lineup that excelled at all positions in shooting the three, forcing Valentine to defend outside her comfort zone near the rim. This opened up the lanes for Davis to blow by their defenders for easy lay-ups, and when UCSB couldn’t stop the drive, the game seemed to get ugly in the first half. At 6’2”, junior guard Paige Mintun was mostly un-guardable when she drove to the rim without Valentine there, which helps explain her team-high 15 points. Despite shooting 42 percent in the first half, UCSB was bitten by their old enemy, the turnover bug, in the first half as Davis’ 3-2 Zone forced an incredible 19 turnovers.

Down 38-24 at the half, a visibly-fatigued Santa Barbara side still managed to make a run at the regular-season champs, cutting the once double-digit lead to 53-51 with 3:21 left in regulation. While they got close, the Gauchos never got over the hump, with UCD ending the contest on a 10-2 run to end UCSB’s magical run. Williams finished with 17 points in her final game as a Gaucho, one of five stellar seniors who ended their collegiate careers in Anaheim.

“I’m really proud of my players on the team they’ve become,” Gottlieb said. “They taught me what it means to believe in something. We were 0-4 and people were starting to question us and we were hearing it and the talk of us being the worst team in Gaucho history and all that. That would have been hard for me if I didn’t get to come to work every day and see this group as they were so resilient and nothing but positive and nothing but a great work ethic. That’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”