The Gauchos withstood a tenacious rally from the Redhawks, defeating visiting Seattle University 67-57 in a nonconference match up and improving their record to 16-10 on the season. The game also marked this year’s Pink Zone game, which raises breast cancer awareness.
[media-credit id=20125 align=”alignright” width=”161″][/media-credit]Junior guard Emilie Johnson led the Gauchos with 19 points and senior forward Mekia Valentine had a 13-point, 17-rebound double-double to go with her seven blocked shots. Valentine also earned the Big West’s Player of the Week Award this week.
“We’re really excited to get a win on Pink Zone day,” Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “We came out and [Emilie] was absolutely on fire in the first half. Mekia dominated the game from the rebounding and defensive standpoint.”
After taking a 35-23 lead to end the first half, Seattle rallied in the second to cut the lead to three but the Gauchos made some clutch baskets to close out the game.
“We had to adjust, and Sweets [Underwood] and Nicole [Nesbit] hit some big shots in the second half,” Gottlieb said. “We had some defensive breakdowns but I love how we responded when they made it close.”
UCSB was also playing without starting guard Kelsey Adrian, the team’s third-leading point scorer and leader in minutes played.
Nesbit scored 12 points for the Gauchos, while freshman guard Melissa Zornig added five points, four rebounds and three assists. Underwood had a big day for UCSB with 11 points and seven rebounds.
“We don’t expect to miss a beat,” Gottlieb said. “That doesn’t take anything away from Kelsey, but we expected the level [of play] to be the same. It builds confidence and hopefully those kids coming off the bench are even more ready to come in and do what we need when Kelsey is back.”
Seattle’s Elle Kerfoot led all scorers with 20 points. The Redhawks double-teamed Valentine constantly throughout the first half, limiting her to four points in the period.
“I’ve gotten used to facing double teams, and I was more focused on my defense than on my offense,” Valentine said. “I was confident that my teammates were going to knock down shots and eventually that opened things up for me in the second half.”
After a tumultuous weekend in which first-place Cal Poly lost to both Northridge and Riverside, the Gauchos are now in second place and only one game behind the Mustangs, putting them within striking distance of a regular season conference title.
“We want to win a championship, that has been a motivating factor all along,” Gottlieb said. “But we can’t even discuss the chance to have a championship unless we take care of our own business.”
Both teams have a pair of conference match-ups left on their schedule. Should both win out, the last conference game of the season between the two frontrunners in San Luis Obispo would decide the regular season title.
“Our players really have a healthy understanding that we don’t get to talk about any championships if we don’t win our games,” Gottlieb said. “If the opportunity does present itself, where we get a game up at Cal Poly that really means something. Then that is pretty exciting.”
In its next game, UCSB faces Long Beach at the Thunderdome on Feb. 24. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.