Makala Roper pushes past UC Riverside’s defense, attempting to score a point for the Gauchos. Christina DeMarzo/Daily Nexus

The UCSB women’s team survived a late Cal Poly comeback effort on Saturday to open the first week of Big West play 2-0. Starting the fourth quarter the Gauchos were ahead of the Mustangs by 19 points, but a Mustang effort to make the game interesting prompted a 14-2 run during a stretch in the final quarter. Without a field goal for over four minutes, the Gauchos were lucky enough to make enough free throws in the end, coming out on top 73-68.

Although conference season is far from over, the Gauchos now sit at second in the Big West behind fellow 2-0 UC Davis. After starting the season 1-9, Santa Barbara, now 5-9,  has won its last four games, effectively turning the season around for conference play. Head coach Bonnie Henrickson knows there’s still room for improvement, “We aren’t where we were, we aren’t where we need to be, but we are moving in the right direction.”

With Cal Poly’s comeback effort falling short, the Mustangs settle back in to .500, 1-1 in the Big West and 7-7 overall. Cal Poly’s senior guard Dynn Leaupepe, who came into the game off a 40-point performance in an overtime win over UC Riverside, had a game-high 30 points on 27 shots at the Thunderdome. In an off night shooting for Leaupepe and her teammates, Cal Poly finished the game 26 for 70 from the field.

The first quarter of play found both teams locked at 0-0 until the 6:42 mark, when Makala Roper drove the lane and finished, giving the Gauchos the 2-0 lead. Roper, a senior, had 7 of her 15 points in the first quarter, and finished the game with a career high 9 assists. Bringing defensive energy early, Santa Barbara held the Mustangs to just 8 points off 18 percent shooting in the quarter, leading 11-8 heading into the second.

“I know everything can get flustered,” said Roper post-game, “and I’m the point guard so I need to make sure everyone’s calm. I have to make sure to have a level head so everything is okay.”

Despite Cal Poly’s terrible shooting effort in the first, the Mustangs continued to put pressure on Santa Barbara in a variety of press and trap defenses. Obviously feeling this pressure, the Gauchos turned the ball over 8 times in the first quarter alone and went on to turn it over 7 more times in the second.

In the high-octane second quarter, Santa Barbara outscored Cal Poly 28-16 to take a 39-24 going into halftime. The Gauchos had no problem finding the net, shooting over 60 percent overall and from downtown. Dynn Leaupepe put her team on her back in the quarter, scoring 13 of her team’s 16 points, but it wasn’t enough to counter the Gauchos’ weapon off the bench: Tal Sahar. Sahar, who didn’t log a single minute in the team’s victory over Long Beach on Thursday, came alive in the second to score all of her 17 points in the quarter. The redshirt sophomore said after the game, “From the first shot I took, I was like, okay, this is going to be a good game.” Sahar’s energy was part of an 11-2 UCSB run to open the quarter, forcing a Mustang timeout.

Senior Chaya Durr spoke following the game, addressing Sahar’s contribution. “Tal came in with great minutes off the bench and got us hyped up as well,” Durr said, “She was knocking down shots and we were just feeding off of it. It was just working.”

The Gauchos had another hot quarter in the third, shooting 50 percent from three. While Dynn Leaupepe herself scored another 7 in the quarter, Sarah Bates and Chaya Durr each had 8 for UCSB and Roper added 6 as the Gauchos outscored the Mustangs 24-20. Durr finished the game with 10 points and 8 boards, hitting a three at the buzzer to put her team up 63-44 heading into the final quarter.

Up by 19 with just 10 minutes left to play, the Gauchos seemed in control. After the Mustangs hit a pair of threes, Drew Edelman made a layup with 6:50 left to give Santa Barbara a comfortable 17-point lead. With 11 points and a game-high 10 boards, Edelman finished with a double-double on an efficient 5 of 7 shooting.

The Mustangs refused to go away, though, organizing a trapping press defense that flustered the Gauchos. Facing the pressure, Santa Barbara lost possession a total 10 times in the fourth to record a season-high 33 turnovers on the night. The Mustangs took advantage of Santa Barbara’s mistakes, scoring 39 points off turnovers over the course of the game, but it wasn’t until the final quarter that Cal Poly closed the gap. An 11-0 Poly run forced a UCSB timeout with just 2:55 remaining, the Gauchos now only ahead 67-61. Their 19-point lead diminished to just 6, the Gauchos regrouped during the timeout to extend their lead to 8 off a Roper jumpshot. In desperation mode, the Mustangs got a quick three-ball and a layup to fall, moving within three of the Gauchos, 66-69 with just under 2 minutes to go. With 55 seconds left, Sarah Bates got to the rim with a nice move for an and-one. The freshman guard, who finished with 17, completed the three-point play to give her team the 72-66 point lead. With time running out, Cal Poly was forced to fire up some quick shots, but it was too little, too late. The Gauchos survived the comeback effort, holding on to win 73-68.

With 33 turnovers, the Gauchos’ win over Cal Poly has some areas of concern for head coach Bonnie Henrickson, but also some positives. “Clearly, we’ve got to be better with more poise and composure,” said Henrickson, “I thought Chaya [Durr] defensively was really good on Dynn [Leaupepe], I thought our scouting report defense was really good.”

The Gauchos now have two road games ahead of them, versus CSU Northridge and UC Irvine this coming week. On a winning streak and still making improvements, 2-0 Santa Barbara is certainly eager to continue Big West play.