It was a tale of two halves for the UCSB women’s basketball team in their home opener last night, though the Gauchos walked away with a 61-52 victory.
The game gives the team their first win of their campaign, bumping their record up to 1-2. It was also the first official win for Head Coach Carlene Mitchell. St. Mary’s dropped to 1-2 and are now 0-5 when playing at the Thunderdome.
“I think we came out with a bit of a chip on our shoulder because they really gave it to us last year,” sophomore guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We were finding each other in transition finally and it was just fun to be out there tonight.”
The first half was all Gauchos, who got off to a better start than in their first two games and never trailed in the contest. UCSB’s high defensive intensity was on display, holding St. Mary’s to just 14 points.
“We feel like if we put the pressure initially like we did tonight on the defensive end of things that we can have a chance to win games,” Mitchell said. “It was definitely by far the best [defensive effort] in the first three games. They had some great players, but we did a great job on the defensive end.”
Meanwhile, the Gauchos found their stride offensively, shooting 53.8 percent from the field in the first half. With just under three minutes left, the Gauchos had racked up an impressive 28-point lead, the largest lead of the game for the Gauchos.
“I think it was just the energy level,” senior guard Emilie Johnson said. “We were feeding off of each other and we know now how we can [play] because of that run in the first half.”
The second half told a different story. After halftime, the Gaels continued a 7-0 run that ended the first half and continued to cut into the Gaucho lead, assisted by UCSB fouls. By the eight-minute mark, UCSB was in the penalty. On the game, St. Mary’s converted 21 of their 30 free throws.
“We have to play [like we did in the first half] for 40 minutes,” Johnson said. “We can’t dip off or have any momentum swings; we need to be in control for 40 minutes.”
A charge by junior center Kirsten Tilleman led to a technical foul by St. Mary’s coach. With just over a minute remaining, the Gaels’ leading scorer and senior guard Jasmine Smith hit a three to bring the lead down to six points. UCSB converted their free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
“There’s still a lot more to this team and I know we’re going to continue to grow and get better,” Mitchell said. “With that, there should be a lot of wins this year.”
Turnovers were an issue in Santa Barbara’s first two games and came back to haunt the Gauchos, who committed 16 second-half turnovers.
“It was just a lack of focus,” Johnson said. “We need to take care of the ball, be strong with it. Some of the turnovers were unforced and some had to do with execution and being there for each other because they were trapping and double teaming.”
Three UCSB players finished in double figures, including Nesbit who set a new team high with 15 points and provided a big spark off the bench. Sophomore guard Melissa Zornig, who propelled the Gauchos offensively in the first half, finished with nine points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. However, it was truly a concerted effort, as every player who stepped on the court had at least one point.
“It was a great team effort,” Mitchell said. “I think at different stages of the game there were different players stepping up. We had three players in double figures, which will win us games.”
UCSB resumes play Saturday against Loyola Marymount. The game will begin at 2 p.m. at the Thunderdome.