IRVINE, Calif. – The way things started for the UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team on Tuesday night, it looked like it might be another quick exit for the Gauchos in the Big West Tournament.
UC Irvine, seeded third, had jumped out to an eight-point lead and had forced the Gauchos into six turnovers in their first seven possessions. Yet, the Gauchos chipped away and eventually took control of the game, winning 61-51 in the first round of the Big West Tournament. UCSB, which had lost both regular-season games to UCI, advances to the semifinals of the tournament where the Gauchos will face Pacific on Friday. Tip-off will be at about 2:30 from the Honda Center.
Santa Barbara (15-15 overall) used its strong defense to get back into the game as the Gauchos limited their own turnovers and forced several by the Anteaters. UCSB's second unit all subbed into the game and Jackie Luna-Castro's layup at the 13:30 mark in the first half was UCSB's first points. Nicole Nesbit, Melissa Zornig and Angelei Aguirre helped force turnovers and all of a sudden, the Gauchos had tied the game at 20-20.
However, the Gauchos didn't take their first lead until early in the second half and the teams had five tie scores over the next 14 minutes with neither getting more than six points away from each other. Melissa Zornig, though, was an offensive catalyst for the Gauchos as she scored eight points during one stretch in the second half to help UCSB maintain control. Zornig ended the night with a game-best 15 points, her highest total since scoring 16 on Dec. 31 at Cal Poly.
Kassandra McCalister, who scored 21 points in a January win at the Thunderdome and 36 in a win two weeks ago at the Bren Events Center, finished with just five points on 2 of 7 shooting while committing four turnovers.
Irvine's Kelly Meggs knocked down a free throw with 4:31 left to bring UCI within a point at 45-44. But that would be as close as the Anteaters would get.
Kelsey Adrian buried a three-pointer from the corner moments later to push UCSB's lead to 48-44 with 4:04 remaining. The Anteaters didn't make a field goal for the rest of the night. The Gauchos put the game out of reach by hitting 11 of their final 12 free throws over the final 2:13 and dealt UCI the upset.
Emilie Johnson finished with 10 points, eight of those coming at the free throw line in the closing moments, while Sweets Underwood had nine points and nine rebounds. Kirsten Tilleman finished with nine points and six boards.
While UCSB had six early turnovers the Gauchos handled the ball well the rest of the night and finished with 15, just a tick above their season average. Santa Barbara also had eight steals against UCI.
UCSB's defense, one of the best in the nation, allowed Irvine to shoot 52.4% in the first half but held the Anteaters to just 30.4% in the second stanza.
The Gauchos' semifinals game on Friday will be broadcast live on AM 990 and online by clicking here. The pregame show starts a half-hour prior to tip-off. For Big West Tournament ticket information, call 893-UCSB.