IRVINE, Calif. – The No. 8 UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team fought back from an 18-point second half deficit in its Big West Tournament First Round game against No. 5 seed UC Irvine Tuesday night at the Bren Events Center, but fell just short, 53-46.
"We have to be able to knock down shots, but we were chasing the game early and it set a bad tone for the game," said UCSB Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson at the postgame press conference.
Resilient as they have been for most of the final stretch of the season, the Gauchos (8-22) battled back from 13 points down in the first half, cutting what was an 18-5 UC Irvine lead to just two points, 18-16, on a Danae Miller free throw.
The Anteater (19-10) lead would balloon back up to 18 points at 40-22 midway through the third quarter after a pair of Jordan Sanders free throws. The sophomore finished with game-highs of 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Center Natalia Bruening put up a nearly identical statline, leading UCSB with 16 points and 12 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season. Bruening did most of her damage in the second half as the Gauchos, who struggled with their shot throughout, put more emphasis on getting the ball inside down the stretch. Santa Barbara shot just 25.4 percent for the game and made just 3-of-25 three-point attempts, but still managed to keep the game close until the final minutes.
Irvine wasn't much better offensively, connecting on just 32.7 percent of its shot attempts, allowing UCSB to continue to inch closer and hang around. The Gauchos put up eight straight points over the final minutes of the third quarter, and would cut it to just five at 46-41 with 2:01 remaining in the fourth following three straight Bruening free throws.
The Anteaters would make just one three in the fourth quarter, but it was a big one. Andee Ritter had gotten UCI out to a good start with a pair of triples in the opening period, but wouldn't hit another shot until 1:36 to go, putting UCI back up by eight points, 49-41.
Redshirt junior guard Coco Miller didn't have a good shooting night by her standards, but she finally got a triple to go on the very next possession, giving UCSB another chance by cutting it back to five. The Gauchos would make things very difficult over the final 75 seconds, forcing a couple of turnovers and getting some great looks at three-pointers which could have cut it to a one possession game, but they couldn't get them to fall.
Miller finished with seven points, three steals and a career-high eight assists. Her backcourt partner and fellow All-Big West selection Danae Miller was the only other Gaucho to tally an assist, finishing with three helpers to go along with six points and six boards. Guard Tal Sahar also pitched in with seven points.
"We had a young team this season, but we struggled to find consistency throughout. Next year we'll have more experience, so if we can work on being consistent, we'll look like a brand-new team," said Bruening.
"They didn't give in, they let us coach them. These guys wanted to get it right. We didn't get it right enough, but they gave us a chance to get better," remarked Henrickson.
The loss ends a run of four straight Big West Tournament wins over the Anteaters dating back to 1997. Unfortunately for the Gauchos, after a conference season in which they went 0-8 in away games, they drew the team which happened to be hosting the first tournament's first two rounds.