The quest to the Big West Tournament continues to gradually become more intense as the conference schedule reaches its end. Postseason play begins in March, and the UCSB women’s basketball team is preparing for its last home game of the month tonight when it will host Cal State Northridge.

Natalia Bruening tries to shoot a layup. Dustin Harris / Daily Nexus

Tonight’s home game is the Gauchos’ last before it begins a four-game road trip this Saturday.

“We have our hands full with focusing on ‘what is the process?’ What is it going to take for us to find success against Northridge?” Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “Whether we’re home for four in a row now or if we’re on the road, that has no impact on [tonight].”

After having its four-game home winning streak ended over the weekend, UCSB will attempt to improve its 11-11 overall, 6-3 conference record. The Gauchos are tied for third place in the Big West standings with UC Riverside.

Since its victory over UCSB two weeks ago, Cal State Northridge is en route to ascending within the standings, as it has won three-straight games. The Matadors are 11-11 and 4-4, making them fifth in the conference.

CSUN’s trio of consecutive wins began with its 75-61 victory over UCSB in the two teams’ first meeting on Jan. 25.

UCSB will hope to avoid a season sweep against CSUN, which last happened in the 2014-15 season. In order to do so, the Gauchos will look to overcome their worst shooting performance in a conference game this season in their loss to UC Davis.

Santa Barbara shot 31 percent from the field on 18-for-58 shooting and finished with a 12.5 three-point percentage on 2-for-16 perimeter shooting.

In three of its last four games, excluding its program-record of 15 made three-pointers, UCSB has experienced a decline from beyond the arc. During the span of games, Santa Barbara has shot 30 percent or below from behind the three-point line on 13-for-56 shooting.

“We went back a couple games with the guards, [and] looked at all of our makes and attempts,” Henrickson said. “[We] just looked at footwork. The message wasn’t to discourage them from shooting, but to encourage footwork, to be shot ready.”

Hoping to regain consistency in perimeter shooting is redshirt sophomore guard Sarah Porter. She finished with zero points on 0-for-8 overall, 0-for-5 three-point shooting in the team’s recent loss.

Yet, her scoreless performance isn’t too discouraging, as Porter has displayed her sharpshooting from long range all season, and currently ranks both third and fourth in total three-pointers made and three-point percentage in the Big West at 48 and 40.3 percent, respectively. She remains one of the team’s top scorers, emerging during conference play for an 11.4 points-per-game average.

Despite her scoreless performance, it can be expected that Porter will look to establish her shooter’s touch early, and she could be the team’s difference maker after sitting out the Gauchos’ first matchup against the Matadors due to a shoulder injury.

“We ended up playing four guards [in the first meeting]. Obviously, we missed her that day because she does a lot of really good things for her,” Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “She’s gotta pressure the ball on the perimeter, be aggressive offensively, get some offensive rebounds, get to the free-throw line and be a big athletic guard in this league. She’s a big part of who we are, but there are no excuses. We’re a team sport, somebody else has the opportunity to step up, but we didn’t really have anybody take advantage of the opportunity.”

While Porter provides an “athletic big” presence, the speed and downhill play of both of UCSB’s point guards in senior Onome Jemerigbe and redshirt junior Drea Toler is the focal point to the team’s operation.

Currently averaging a career-high of nine points per game, Jemerigbe’s most significant improvement has been her shooting. Specifically, she has thrived from behind the three-point line as she leads the Big West in three-point percentage with a 47.1 average.

Meanwhile, Toler has been UCSB’s sparkplug off the bench and has been most impactful during Big West play. After averaging 9.2 ppg during the non-conference schedule, Toler is now just behind Porter for the team lead in conference games with 11.2 ppg.

While UCSB has managed to outdo opponents with its scoring and three-point shooting, UCSB’s ability to improve its on-ball defense will be most important tonight as it prepares to face a Matador team that can produce both inside the paint and along the perimeter.

Presenting a problem for the Gauchos’ defense in the first meeting was the shooting of redshirt junior guard Serafina Maulupe. She scored a career-high 28 points and finished the game 10-for-21 from the field, 3-for-8 from downtown. Finishing eighth in the Big West with a 34.6 three-point percentage last season, Maulupe is on pace once again for a top-10 spot with a current 37.9 long range percentage that ranks sixth.

Aiding Maulupe off the bench was sophomore guard Cheyenne Allen with a career-high 21 points.

Yet, the biggest concern for the Gauchos is finding a way to contain CSUN’s primary force of sophomore center Channon Fluker.

She became just the second player ever in CSUN’s Division I history to record a 20-20 game with 22 points and a career-high 20 rebounds in the team’s win over Long Beach State over the weekend.

As the only current Big West player to average a double-double — 15.8 ppg and a league-leading 11.4 rebounds per game, respectively — Fluker’s talents have placed her alongside some of the nation’s best frontcourt players.

The Matadors’ post star is sixth in rebounds per game, tied for seventh in double-doubles with 14, eighth in total rebounds with 251, 24th in both total blocks and blocks per game with 54 and a 2.45 average, respectively.

“[Fluker] is everybody’s primary concern defensively, but where they got us [in the first meeting] was inside-outside. They scored on the perimeter and didn’t have to go to her right away. They had great pace offensively, really stretched the defense,” Henrickson said.

Fluker recorded a career-high seven blocks in Northridge’s victory over UCSB earlier this season. She also tallied 11 rebounds, which contributed to the Matadors outrebounding the Gauchos 47-27.

Pivotal to UCSB’s attempt to contain the Matadors will be its ability to take away one of the Matadors’ assets and not allow them to control both the interior and perimeter.

UCSB and CSUN tips off tonight at 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome.


A version of this story appeared on p. 6 of the Thursday, February 9, 2017 print edition of the Daily Nexus.