On the road facing Big West-leading UC Irvine, the UCSB women’s basketball team stepped up big on Thursday with an important 69-58 victory over the Anteaters.

[media-credit id=20281 align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit] With the win, the Gauchos are now 9-7 (3-1 in conference) on the season. Junior guard Emilie Johnson scored a game-high 20 points and freshman guard Melissa Zornig contributed a career-high 17 points for UCSB. The loss drops Irvine to 11-5 (3-1 in conference) and into a tie for second in the Big West with the Gauchos.

“We had a lot of people that stepped up tonight,” senior forward Mekia Valentine said. “We are a team with multiple weapons. It’s really nice knowing that we have a team with five players that could score one night and five different players who could score the next night.”

Valentine led the Gauchos with 16 rebounds while adding eight points and two blocks. The bench posted its second consecutive 23-point effort.

“Our game plan was to make it hard for their top two scorers tonight,” Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Our pressure put them out of a rhythm and they missed a lot of shots early. We executed the game plan well and competed for a full 40 minutes.”

The Gauchos held Irvine forward Mikah Maly-Karros and guard Jade Smith-Williams in check throughout the game, holding the duo to 16 points, well below their combined average of 33.

“It was a phenomenal defensive effort by our team,” Gottlieb said. “Mekia set the tone early and didn’t let [Maly-Karros] get anything easy. She was able to control the game from the start and the rest of the players did a great job helping on the double-team.”

Irvine was held to under 33 percent shooting on the night, highlighted by Smith-Williams’ two of 10 from the field. The Gauchos shot 51 percent from the field.

“I haven’t been hitting a lot of my shots, especially threes,” Zornig said. “But in this game, I started taking it to the basket more. It felt really good to start hitting those shots out there tonight.”

UCSB outrebounded Irvine by 15 in the game. Sophomore forward Sweets Underwood continued to play well with nine points and six rebounds while filling in for senior forward Margaret Johnson, who has missed the last three games due to an injury.

However, turnovers continued to be a concern for the Gauchos as they committed a season high of 27.

“We need to give ourselves a chance to score, and turnovers take away those opportunities.,” Gottlieb said. “Tonight was a situation where it unraveled with the turnovers, but we were able to still win despite not taking care of the ball.”

After a good night’s rest, the Gauchos will continue the road trip and prepare for another tough opponent, this time facing defending Big West champion UC Riverside. The Highlanders’ record of 9-7 (3-1 in conference) is identical to UCSB’s.

“I think they are a tough team,” Zornig said. “We need to stop them defensively. We are going to get a game plan going tomorrow, and hopefully it will be effective and we can knock them off because they were Big West champs last year.”

Riverside is coming off of an 85-67 victory over Long Beach State on Thursday night. Sophomore guard Tre’Shonti Nottingham leads the team with over 10 points per game.

“The game plan for Riverside is totally different,” Gottlieb said. “We know they are the defending tournament champs and we need to focus on our prep and play with same the same intensity and energy as we did tonight. It’s going to be key for us to control the boards, and clean up the offense obviously, but overall continue to be a lockdown defensive team.”

Tip-off against Riverside is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Saturday.