That lovin’ feelin’ returned to the Thunderdome for two happy hours Saturday afternoon. UCSB’s women, buoyed by the largest home attendance in three years, played their best basketball of the season in a resounding 85-70 victory over Cal Poly.
With their third consecutive victory, the Gaucho women still have a shot at finishing fourth in the Big West and earning a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. Pacific upset Long Beach State on Saturday, dropping Long Beach into a tie with UCSB, both 8-7 in the league. Because the Gauchos lost twice to Long Beach, they need a win at UC Irvine on Wednesday and a 49er loss at UC Riverside to secure fourth place.
“All we can do is take care of our own games,” UCSB coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
Before a crowd of 2,217, the Gauchos took care of Cal Poly, which had been rolling along with a 10-4 conference record. All five UCSB seniors had their moments in their last game at the ’Dome, and sophomore Emilie Johnson was sensational in 39 minutes of action. Johnson rallied the Gauchos from a slow start with 20 first-half points. She finished with 27 points, eight assists and four steals. The 5’6” guard sank 10 of 15 shots, including five of seven three-pointers.
Also scoring in double figures were seniors Meagan Williams (14) and Ariana Gnekow (11). Williams added a game-high nine rebounds and six assists. Junior center Mekia Valentine, the nation’s third leading shot blocker, scored 12 points and swatted away seven shots.
As a team, UCSB made 52.5 percent of its shots from the floor (31 of 59) and held Cal Poly to 35.8 percent (24 of 67). The Gauchos have had similar percentages on other occasions that they failed to win — because they turned the ball over more than 20 times a game. They had only 12 turnovers against the Mustangs.
“We’ve been pressed all year,” Gottlieb said, “and we’ve continually gotten better and better.”
It’s a good time to be at their best. The Big West Tournament, which awards an NCAA berth to the winner, will begin in Anaheim on March 10.
“We expect the same result in the tournament as other Gaucho teams,” said senior Chris Spencer. UCSB has won the women’s title in 11 of the past 13 seasons, including the last two. “This was a breakthrough,” Spencer said of the win over Cal Poly. “We know the talent we have.”
It was talent driven by emotion for the seniors Saturday. “It hit us this was our last game in the Thunderdome,” Gnekow said. “What better team to be playing than Cal Poly. All the seniors were really excited.”
Spencer and Jordan Franey combined for 17 points. UCSB’s fifth senior, Jessie Goble, came off the bench in the final minute. Limited to five games because of a bad back, Goble brought her teammates to their feet when she stuffed a shot by Cal Poly’s Becky Tratter. “When Jessie got a blocked shot, we all got crazy,” Williams said.
UCSB, 11-16 overall, went 6-8 in home games this season. But the setbacks were forgotten on Saturday, an afternoon reminiscent of old times. Appropriately, there was a halftime ceremony recognizing former Gaucho great Barb Beainy as a “Legend of the Dome.” Beainy sparked the Gauchos to their first championship season in 1992, and former coach Mark French called her “the most influential player in the history of UCSB women’s basketball” because of her competitive attitude.