Gauchos Mount Huge Comeback, Fall Just Short to CSUB in Home Opener

Coco Miller (Photo by Jeilo Gauna)
Coco Miller (Photo by Jeilo Gauna)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Facing Cal State Bakersfield Friday night in its home season-opener at The Thunderdome, the UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team nearly pulled off an incredible comeback, cutting 19 points off what was a 21-point first half deficit.

However, the Gauchos' (0-2) first half shooting woes proved too much to overcome, as the Roadrunners (2-0) scored the final six points in a 56-48 road win.

Junior center Natalia Bruening was stellar once again in the middle, following up her first career double-double on Tuesday with 11 points and a new career-high 16 boards against CSUB. Guard Coco Miller also had 11 points to tie for team-high honors, coming up one free throw shy of a personal-best with a 6-of-7 (.857) mark on free throws.

"[Bruening] did a good job. For someone who didn't get a lot of minutes last year, she's continued to get better," head coach Bonnie Henrickson said. we're really excited and proud of her for her start to the year. Now she's going to get a lot more attention. We're proud and really happy for her, she's earned it.

Bruening's final point came at the line with 1:36 left in the game, capping a remarkable 14-0 Gaucho run and cutting the Bakersfield lead to just two points at 50-48. After Bruening missed on the second free throw, sophomore guard Bri Anugwom would pounce on the Roadrunners in the backcourt, stealing the ball with a chance to tie the game for the first time since the opening minutes.

Unfortunately for the Gauchos, Anugwom wasn't able to get a clean look, as her well-contested shot in deep rolled off the rim. On the subsequent possession, the Roadrunners would score for the first time in over six minutes. That started a 6-0 run to close the game as the visitors went on to ice things at the foul line.

While UCSB's first half offense (2-22 FG) was largely responsible for digging the home side into the 21-point hole, the Gauchos did manage to get to the free throw line early and often, knocking down 23-of-31 (.742) from the stripe. It was tied for the most made free throws since Henrickson's first season with the team in 2015-16.

The Gauchos' newfound aggression coming out of halftime would help get them back in the game, as they went an efficient 14-for-16 on free throws over the final 20 minutes.

"Once we got into the locker room, coach helped us figure things out and it was just a wake-up call for us," senior guard Paris Jones said. "We weren't attacking gaps, we were just swinging the ball around, we weren't aggressive offensively or defensively. After that, we started becoming more aggressive, getting stops and turning them into scores on the offensive end."

Miller converted a three-point play with 5:36 remaining in the fourth, kickstarting the Gauchos' 14-0 surge. On the next possession, freshman Kiana Vierra knocked down a triple for her first career field goal to bring UCSB within 10 at 50-40. The Gauchos shot just 3-for-25 from range, compared to 8-of-27 for the Roadrunners.

Bruening would score six of the Gauchos' next eight points, also putting in a traditional three-point play. She finished 3-for-7 from the field and registered a block in a second consecutive game for the first time in her career.

After going scoreless in Tuesday's season-opener at Utah Valley, UCSB's bench was much more effective on Friday night, going a combined 3-of-6 from the field for 11 points. Guard Lauren Lee led the bench mob with six points, hitting 4-of-5 free throws, while forward Megan Ormiston added two points on her only shot attempt, joining Lee and Vierra as Gaucho freshmen who scored their first career points on the night.

UCSB will hit the road for its third game of the season next Thursday to take on USC.