Gauchos Fight Back Down the Stretch Again, But Fall Short 70-57 to LMU

Tal Sahar (Photo by Jeilo Gauna)
Tal Sahar (Photo by Jeilo Gauna)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team battled down the stretch against a tough Loyola Marymount team on Monday night, but it wasn't enough to overcome a slow start as UCSB fell 70-57.

Despite the loss to the undefeated Lions (3-0), the Gauchos (0-4) came away with a handful of positives to build on moving forward, particularly on the offensive end. Several Gauchos put together their best performances of the early season, but none played better than guard Coco Miller, who poured in game-highs of 20 points and five assists in 39 minutes.

"Coco was big for us playing at the point," head coach Bonnie Henrickson said. "We want to push the ball in transition, get it in the paint and move it. That's important for us to be able to do, and she's one of our best at it."

After a 19-5 LMU run blew the game open in the third quarter, seeing the visitors take their largest lead of the night at 45-24, the Gauchos would look like a different team the rest of the way, led by the backcourt tandem of Miller and Tal Sahar. The two combined for 26 of UCSB's 33 second half points, helping cut the 21-point deficit to as little as eight in the final minutes.

Serving as the team's lead ball-handler and playmaker, Miller connected on an efficient 53.3 percent (8-15 FG) of her shots on the night, including 2-of-6 from three-point range. This comes after she shot just 19 percent (4-21 FG) over her last two outings. It was her first 20-point game in over 22 months, and the fifth of her career.

Sahar meanwhile overcame an even colder shooting slump. Coming off the bench for the second straight game, the former Calabasas High School standout put up a season-high 15 points – her third-highest total ever in a Gaucho uniform – to go along with four rebounds and a pair of assists. Sahar entered the game having made just 1-of-18 three-point attempts this season, but she would proceed to knock down 4-of-7 against the Lions, including three over the final 16 minutes.

"It was good to see Tal playing in rhythm and not rushing things," Henrickson said. "I told her, throw the ball inside and go to the offensive glass. Her effort on the offensive glass was much better tonight. It was good to see her play with a little more confidence."

UCSB's 33-point second half was its second-highest scoring half through four games, outscoring the visitors 33-32 over the final 20 minutes. The Gauchos similarly put up 34 second half points in a comeback effort in their only other home game against Cal State Bakersfield 10 days prior.

The first half woes however continued to slow them down. UCSB was outscored 16-6 in the first quarter, shooting just 3-of-12 as a team. It was the third time in four games that the Gauchos ended the opening period with single-digits in the scoring column.

"Just dribble pick-ups that led us to turnovers to start the game, and you can't do that," said Henrickson. "But I'm proud of the way we fought. We didn't let it go, we still had people giving effort, trying to get on the offensive glass and rebound."

Trailing 58-39 with just over five minutes remaining, a Sahar triple began one of the most exciting four-minute stretches so far this year. The Gauchos embarked on a 16-5 run, including two more threes from Miller and Sahar. The run would be capped off by a Natalia Bruening layup on a highlight-reel assist by guard Kiana Vierra to make it 63-55 with just under two minutes to go. LMU would score seven of the next nine points to close the game out.

It was somewhat of a bounce-back game for Bruening, who after being shut out at USC several nights ago got back on track with seven points and five boards on a 3-of-6 mark from the field. She was active on the defensive end as well, tying a career-high with three blocks. The freshman Vierra also provided a spark off the bench, hitting two of her first three attempts from range and ending up with eight points and two assists.

Forward Megan Ormiston continued an efficient start to her freshman season, going 3-of-5 from the floor for early career-highs of seven points and four rebounds, three of which came on the offensive glass. Following Vierra's second three-pointer late in the first half, Ormiston converted a three-point play to cut LMU's lead to 26-19. That's when the Lions would take control of the game, closing the half on a 12-5 run before opening the third quarter with 10 unanswered points.

While the Gauchos finished with season-highs of 57 points and eight three-pointers, the difference on the night came both on the glass and at the free throw line. UCSB was outrebounded 43-30, but suffered a huge disparity with just 5-of-9 free throws compared to 24-for-38 for the Lions.

For the third straight game, Santa Barbara's bench increased its scoring output, recording a season-high 30 points. The Gauchos' previous-high had been 16 points at USC, which Sahar nearly single-handedly matched with her 15 points.

UCSB will have another 10-day gap between home games, with its next one coming in a noon matchup with St. Mary's on Thursday, Nov. 29. Later this week though, the Gauchos will head back on the road for two games at the UNLV Tournament, beginning with the host Rebels this Saturday at 12:00 p.m.