SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – UC Santa Barbara hung tight with No. 6/7 ranked Kentucky for 20 minutes on Friday afternoon in the Thunderdome, but was unable to hold on as the Wildcats powered their way to a 66-38 victory.
With the loss, UCSB falls to 4-7 on the season and drops its second straight. The Wildcats, meanwhile, improve to 10-1 after locking down their ninth straight and their ninth win by a margin of 18 or more points.
"We played a great team tonight that is going to be a lot of teams by 25 or 30 points, even when they get to SEC play," head coach Carlene Mitchell said. "It's about the bigger picture for us. Hopefully our kids will understand that we have the chance to be really good. We have to stay healthy and continue to want to improve each day."
The game got off to a slow start with only six points being scored collectively in the first five minutes, but Kentucky proceeded to build upon its 4-2 lead with a 13-4 run that gave it the biggest advantage of the half with 8:08 on the clock. Melissa Zornig hit a three-pointer to cut the Gaucho deficit back down to single digits and spurred a 7-2 Gaucho run that shaved Kentucky's lead to just three points with just under six minutes to go in the half.
Kentucky was able to force several Gaucho turnovers and push its lead back to 10 points with 1:05 on the clock, but a layup by Kirsten Tilleman with 29 seconds left put the score at 28-20 at half. Kentucky's 28 points marked its third-lowest first half output this season and its lowest against an unranked opponent.
The Gauchos shot 47.1% (8-for-17) from the field in the first half and Zornig led the way scoring all nine of her points while shooting 100% in the opening stanza. UCSB out-rebounded the Wildcats, 14-12, but also led in turnovers, 17-8. Kentucky shot 41.4% (12-for-29) and was led by DeNesha Stallworth's 10 points and five rebounds.
Unfortunately, this game was a tale of two halves. Kentucky came out of the locker rooms and went on a 25-7 run to take its biggest lead to that point at 53-27 with 9:21 to go. The Gauchos were unable to cut their deficit to any less than 23 points as they shot just 26.1% from the field (6-for-23) during the second stanza. For its part, Kentucky shot an improved 48.4% in the second, going 15-for-31 from the field.
The Gauchos certainly had some bright moments, as they out-rebounded the Wildcats, 31-30 and shot an impressive 88.9% (8-of-9) from the free-throw line. UCSB, which ranked 40th in the nation for fewest turnovers earlier this week, had a season-high 28 in the loss.
Sweets Underwood and Zornig led the team with nine points apiece and Underwood chipped in a team-leading 12 boards. Tilleman had 10 rebounds to go along with six points and Nicole Nesbit chipped in seven points and three assists, tying Zornig for the team-high in helpers.
Kentucky had three players in double-digit points. A'dia Mathies had a game-high 19 points while Stallworth contributed 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Samarie Walker finished with a double-double, scoring 12 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
"For me, as the head coach, I am extremely proud of the effort; we played hard, we left everything we had on the court for 40 minutes and there are just going to be days that the ball doesn't go through the hoop for us," Mitchell said. "We played the No. 6 team in the country even – in my mind – for 20 minutes, and that says a lot about the character and the drive of the kids that we have here."
The Gauchos will take a break for the holidays before returning to action on Saturday, Dec. 29 when they host Kansas State at 2 p.m. in the Thunderdome. To purchase tickets, visit the Ticket Office in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building on campus, call 805-893-UCSB (8272) or purchase online by clicking here.