SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Almost exactly three years ago, on a team dominated by seniors, a freshman point guard named Onome Jemerigbe took the ball down the court with four seconds on the clock and her team trailing by one. While her last-second shot just barely missed – ending the Gauchos' season in a hard-fought Big West Tournament first round matchup with UC Davis – one thing was certain: UCSB had a new leader for several years to come.
Fast forward to Saturday night, where a loss to Cal Poly (11-17, 7-9) would drop the Gauchos (14-15, 9-7) to the No. 6 seed in the Big West Tournament, while a win would allow them to skip the first round altogether by bumping them up to the No. 4 seed. After the Mustangs cut what was a 20-point second half lead to just six with 6:08 to go in the regular season, Jemerigbe answered with a dagger triple from the left corner, kickstarting a 13-3 Gaucho run to lead UCSB to a big 77-63 victory, its second in a row.
"I think we were all pretty aware that it was getting close," Jemerigbe said of her big shot. "I just told myself, 'Make it,' and it went in."
In her final game at the Thunderdome, Jemerigbe went out in style, pacing all Gauchos with 16 points, the most she's had since scoring 17 in UCSB's conference-opener at Cal Poly (Jan. 5). She also added two steals, two assists and three rebounds on 3-6 shooting overall and 2-3 on threes.
"I just wanted everybody to have fun and I wanted the energy to be there, and for the most part I think we had it," Jemerigbe said. "It's all-or-nothing now. The momentum that we have from this game will hopefully carry over to the next, and we'll just roll with that."
UCSB connected on .472 (25-53 FG) of its shots, compared to .385 (25-65 FG) for Cal Poly, and set new season-highs in both free throw makes and attempts (19-26 FT). It was the second straight game that UCSB put up season-high numbers at the line, as Jemerigbe led the way with a perfect 8-8 mark.
"We needed some momentum before heading down to Long Beach for the tournament, so winning two games was big for us," head coach Bonnie Henrickson said.
Guards Drea Toler and Sarah Porter added 15 and 13 points, respectively. Porter finished 3-5 from deep, with all three of her treys coming in the first half. It was the sixth time this season that she tallied three triples before halftime. Toler meanwhile went 6-10 from the field and recorded game-highs in both assists (7) and steals (3).
On the Cal Poly side, twin sisters Lynn and Dynn Leaupepe – who torched UCSB for 55 total points in the two teams' first meeting – put up 24 and 16 points, respectively, to lead the Mustangs. While they combined to shoot .600 (18-30 FG) in the first meeting, the Leaupepe's were held to a much more manageable mark of .421 (16-38 FG) on Saturday.
After a three from Cal Poly junior Mary Kate Evans tied things at 25-25 midway through the second quarter, the Gauchos responded with a 12-3 run, taking some momentum with them into the halftime break. UCSB would connect on four three-pointers in the third quarter alone, with two coming from freshman Aliceah Hernandez and the other two from junior Makala Roper and Jemerigbe. Roper's trey was her first in her last seven outings, giving UCSB its largest lead of the game, 61-41.
Led by Lynn Leaupepe, who hit four threes and snatched ten boards for the game's only double-double, Cal Poly clawed its way back, cutting the deficit to 64-58 midway through the fourth quarter. That's when Jemerigbe, who ends the regular season with a .446 three-point percentage (fourth all-time in UCSB single-season history), knocked down her second triple of the day, giving the Gauchos the momentum they needed to close things out.
Santa Barbara was outrebounded (39-37) for the first time in five games, but the home side did win the turnover battle (12 for UCSB, 16 for Cal Poly) and more than doubled the Mustangs in free throw attempts (26-11).
Redshirt junior Drew Edelman finished with nine points (4-7 FG) and four boards, ending a run of five straight games in double-figures.
Forward Melissa Maragnes, who missed much of her senior season while recovering from an ACL injury, came on in the final minute to knock down a free throw and score her final point at the Thunderdome. Maragnes, Jemerigbe and forward Mi'Chael Wright were all honored after the game for Senior Night.
"That group has been here longer than me," said Henrickson, who is completing her second season at UCSB. "I always say you're going to go as far as your seniors take you, from a leadership and energy standpoint. If you look at the beginning of the year and the growth we've had, it's been fun to watch them mature and grow."
UCSB will now turn its attention to Wednesday, when it will face the second-lowest remaining seed in the Big West Tournament second round at Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. Potential opponents include UC Riverside, Cal Poly and Hawai'i.