SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – On Wednesday night, competing in the most singularly significant game it has played in all season, the UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team held on and came away with a huge 44-42 win over Cal Poly, its third straight late-season win at the Thunderdome.
Now at 7-20 overall and 4-10 in Big West play, the Gauchos move past the Mustangs – at least for the time being – for the Big West's No. 8 seed. Cal Poly is now 6-19 overall and 3-11 in conference with just two regular season games remaining.
After entering the fourth quarter trailing 32-29, the Gauchos would close the game on a 15-8 run, scoring 10 points from the foul line. The Mustangs meanwhile went just 1-of-5 from the line for the night, all five attempts coming from forward Hana Vesela. With 1.2 seconds remaining, the junior came up empty on a pair of free throws which could have sent the game into overtime.
"We kept defending, we got aggressive, we got to the free throw line," said head coach Bonnie Henrickson. "It was ugly, it was muddy, but I'm proud of them for hanging in there and proud of them for handling what's at stake."
Moments before Vesela's trip to the foul line, forward Megan Ormiston – who made a huge impact on the glass despite playing just 11 minutes – pulled away what appeared to be a game-clinching rebound with less than two seconds left, as Cal Poly guard Dye Stahley came up short on a potential go-ahead jumper from the left elbow. Stahley had brought the Mustangs within one point with a three-pointer just 45 seconds earlier.
After grabbing her team-leading ninth rebound of the game, Ormiston would score UCSB's final point of the night from the line, putting her team up 44-42. However, after a Cal Poly timeout advanced the ball into the front court, Vesela would draw a foul on the ensuing inbounds, sending her to the line with just three tenths of a second coming off the clock. Her first free throw caromed off the back iron, but the second would take several tricky bounces before falling to junior Alicia Roufosse.
Roufosse's last-second attempt from just a few feet away then glanced across the backboard as time ran out, giving UCSB its biggest win of the year.
"Often times, when it's that ugly, it's the team that gets frustrated and can't score that just gives in and lets it happen," Henrickon said. "The good thing is, when we were struggling on offense, we still defended. We've obviously got to improve offensively, but just proud of our toughness, our resilience, our resolve."
A loss on Saturday would have made UCSB's road to the Big West Tournament a highly unlikely one. Instead, the Gauchos have put their postseason destiny back in their own hands, despite shooting just 24 percent as a team, the lowest shooting percentage in a win in program history.
Three-point plays from Tal Sahar and Natalia Bruening – the first, from beyond the arc, and the second coming in traditional fashion – ended up being UCSB's only two field goals of the fourth quarter, both times tying the game. The Gauchos made just 2-of-12 from the field in the final period, but were clutch from the charity stripe, as they knocked down 10-of-11 free throws.
The Mustangs held the largest lead of the fourth quarter of five points early in the period before a 5-0 UCSB run tied things at 34-34. Neither team led by more than six points all night.
UCSB, which was heavily outshot at the free throw line in its last two games, ended the game an efficient 17-for-20 from the line. Fortunately for the Gauchos, their defensive effort never let up either, as they held the Mustangs to just 33.3 percent shooting and 29.4 percent on threes.
Tal Sahar and Coco Miller tied for team-high honors with eight points apiece, despite going a combined 4-for-25 from the field. Natalia Bruening and Danae Miller scored seven each. Danae also added a game-high three steals on the defensive end.
This Saturday, the Gauchos will host third-place UC Riverside in their Senior Day home finale at 4:00 p.m. Depending on how the rest of the conference plays out, a fourth straight home win could potentially see UCSB clinch a Big West Tournament berth for the fourth straight year.