March 1, 2008

UCSB Clinches Big West Regular Season Title With Spirited 70-62 Victory Over UC Riverside

March 1, 2008

Box Score

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Freshman Ashlee Brown scored a career-high 22 points to lead UC Santa Barbara to a hard-fought 70-62 victory over UC Riverside Saturday evening at the Student Recreation Center. With the season sweep of the Highlanders, the Gauchos clinched the Big West regular season title for the 12th time in the last 13 years.

UCSB bounced back from last week's loss to UC Davis to sweep Riverside for the first time since the 2004-05 season and improved to 13-1 in conference play and 19-7 overall with the victory. The Highlanders, who fell to third place in the conference standings with a loss to Cal Poly on Wednesday, drop to 13-13 overall and 10-4 in the Big West.

Shortly after wrapping up their 15th win in the last 16 games, the Gauchos learned that they had received some help as Pacific knocked off UC Davis 72-71 in a thriller in Stockton. The loss dropped the Aggies to 11-4 in conference play, three games behind UCSB with two to play, and gave the regular season crown to Santa Barbara.

The Gauchos' win over the rival Highlanders came in heated match-up that featured 44 fouls and the ejection of three players following a fight in the second half.

Brown was tremendous off the bench, scoring 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting to lead all scorers. She was an impressive 10-of-11 at the free throw line and also finished with five rebounds. Her previous high was 15 points that came at Cal Poly on January 19.

Chisa Ononiwu had one of her better performances of the season in a reserve role as well, finishing 4-of-8 from the field for 11 points to go with four rebounds and two assists. It was her highest scoring output since she tallied 11 at Cal State Northridge in the first week of conference play.

Brown and Ononiwu led the way for a UCSB bench that accounted for 40 of the team's 70 points in the game.

After averaging just 17.5 minutes in two games last week with a case of strep throat, Kat Sudeman returned to form and was very effective in 14 minutes of action against the Highlanders, scoring 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting.

It took both teams a few minutes to gather themselves offensively and the Gauchos found their groove first, jumping out to an 11-2 lead after the first 7:24 following a jumper from Ononiwu. The lead would not last long, however, as Riverside responded with a 10-0 run capped off by an Amber Cox three pointer to take a 12-11 lead with 10:20 remaining in the first half.

UCSB followed with three consecutive baskets to take a 17-12 advantage and led 21-17 a little more than two minutes later after a Brown jumper in the paint. But Seyram Gbewonyo scored five straight points and the Highlanders closed the half on a 14-8 run to take a 31-29 lead into the locker room at the break.

The two teams battled back and forth through the opening minutes of the second half that featured a total of six ties in the first 6:37 of the second stanza. Sha'Rae Gibbons got to the rim and converted a lay-up to give the Gauchos a 45-43 lead with 12:49 left to play before things really got interesting.

On the ensuing possession, Suderman got a hand on a pass intended for the Highlanders' Tainoisouti Lott and knocked the ball towards the sideline. The two forwards dove out of bounds going for the loose ball and got tangled up in the process. A minor scuffle broke out and, after order was restored, Suderman and Jessica Wilson were ejected for Santa Barbara, while Gbeywonyo was given an early exit for Riverside.

Forced to finish the game without their top two scorers and rebounders, the Gauchos rallied together and responded to the challenge. After UCR took a 46-45 lead, Meagan Williams knocked down a triple, Brown scored inside, and Ononiwu converted a three-point play to give UCSB a 53-46 lead with 9:22 remaining. The Gauchos then opened up their biggest lead of the game at 60-50 three minutes later when Gibbons' hit a long three of her own.

The Highlanders cut the deficit in half following a Lott lay-up at the 4:52 mark, but Brown came up big again, converting a tough contested jumper in the paint and knocking down a pair of free-throws to push the lead back to nine with 3:36 left on the clock.

Riverside made one final run, pulling to within two at 64-62 following a steal and coast-to-coast lay-up from Chanel Foster, but Whitney Warren got all the way to the rim on the next possession and converted a pretty scoop shot to stem the tide and put the Gauchos back in front by four with 52 seconds to play. It was her only basket of the game.

Lauren Pedersen and Brown then hit two free throws apiece in the final 39 seconds to put the finishing touches on the victory.

After shooting 38.5% in the first half, UCSB shot a blistering 60.9% in the decisive second to finish at a 49% clip for the game. Riverside shot 44.6%. The Gauchos won the battle of the boards, 36-26 but finished with 19 turnovers to just 14 miscues for the Highlanders.

Saturday's game marked just the third time this season Santa Barbara won when trailing at the half.

Lott, Foster, and Roney Friend all scored 12 points to lead the home team. Foster was 6-of-7 from the field and finished with six steals.

The Big West champion Gauchos will wrap up the regular season at home next week before heading to Anaheim for the conference tournament March 12-15. UCSB will host Cal State Northridge Thursday at 7:00 p.m. before entertaining Long Beach State Saturday at 2:00 p.m.