Gauchos Lose Big West Title After 62-54 Loss to UC Riverside

Feb. 24, 2007

Box Score

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Kemie Nkele scored a game-high 22 points and Amber Cox added 12 to lead visiting UC Riverside to a 62-54 win over UC Santa Barbara Saturday afternoon and clinch the program's first Big West Conference regular season title. LaShay Fears scored 15 points for the Gauchos, who lost their fourth in a row to the Highlanders.

With the victory, UCR improves to 18-10 overall and wraps up Big West play with a very impressive 12-2 record. The Highlanders' victory gave them their first conference title as a Division I program and snapped the Gauchos' string of 11 consecutive regular season crowns - a streak that had been the longest in the nation. After sharing the Big West title with Long Beach State and earning the No. 1 seeded heading into the conference tournament a year ago, UCSB falls to 15-12 and 8-4 in league play in 2006-07. With two games remaining, the Gauchos can finish no higher than second in the BWC standings.

"Obviously we hate to see our string of conference championships snapped," head coach Mark French said. "But Riverside was a very, very worthy opponent. They were the defending tournament champions coming in to this season, they did what they had to do, played tremendous defense, and earned this championship. My hat goes off to them."

Defense was definitely the story for the Highlanders on Saturday, as they limited the Gauchos to just 54 points - UCSB's fourth lowest total this season. Santa Barbara made a season-low 17 field goals on 50 attempts, 34%, while Riverside finished 23-of-55 from the floor, 41.8%.

Nkele's 22 points came on 7-of-16 shooting to lead three players in double figures for the Highlanders. The junior forward also added nine rebounds and two blocks. Cox finished just 3-of-11 from the floor, but was 2-for-4 from behind the three-point arc. Chanel Foster was 5-for-12 from the field and scored all 10 of her points in the first half.

Fears was the only player to reach double figures for the Gauchos, scoring 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting. The Palmdale, Calif. native was 2-for-6 from downtown. Chisa Ononiwu finished 4-for-10 and scored nine points to go with a career-high 10 rebounds, while Jordan Franey also scored nine on 2-of-8 shooting and had a game-high two steals.

The Highlanders did an excellent job on UCSB's two hottest players, limiting Jenna Green and Jessica Wilson to a combined 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting.

After the Gauchos scored the game's first basket, Riverside scored 24 of the next 28 points to open up a commanding 24-6 advantage with 8:39 remaining in the first half. UCR's run was keyed by three Foster layups and a pair of threes from Cox. Freshman guard Meagan Williams responded with a triple of her own and Green and Franey each hit a pair at the foul line to spark a 23-8 Santa Barbara run to close out the half.

UCSB forced four turnovers and UCR missed nine shots in the final eight minutes of the half, while the Gauchos scored five straight points to pull within one at 30-29. Foster then dribbled through traffic and scored with two seconds left to give the Highlanders a 32-29 halftime advantage.

Seyram Gbewonyo hit a three to open the second half and Riverside embarked on a 16-9 spurt to build a 48-38 lead at the 9:49 mark. Fears then scored the next five points for the Gauchos on a driving layup and a three from the top of the circle and Ononiwu added a three-point play to bring Santa Barbara within four, 50-46.

That was as close as the Gauchos would get as Nkele answered with two straight baskets to put the Highlanders back on top by eight, 54-46 with 4:20 left to play. The Gauchos got back-to-back baskets from Green and Fears to trail by five at 55-50 with 1:07 remaining, but Nkele responded once again, getting past her defender to score inside and put the game out of reach. She scored 17 of Riverside's 30 second half points.

UCSB could get little going toward the basket all afternoon and was outscored 26-12 in the paint. The Highlanders turned 16 Gaucho turnovers into 21 points, while Santa Barbara scored 12 points on 14 Riverside miscues. The rebounding battle was even at 38-38.

The win was the first for UC Riverside in Santa Barbara since 1986 and that was also the last time the Highlanders swept a Big West opponent in a regular season series.

The Gauchos wrap up Big West play on the road next week and will battle for second place starting at Pacific Thursday, March 1 at 7:00 p.m. UCSB will then head to Cal State Northridge Saturday March 3 at 4:00 p.m.

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