Gauchos hold back UCI

IRVINE — The only four-letter acronym in the Big West Conference is UC Santa Barbara. But for an emerging UC Irvine women's basketball program, it might as well be UC Stumbling Block.

The visiting Gauchos, who came in with a 216-27 conference record since the 1995-96 season, and had won 17 of their previous 18 contests against UCI, extended that dominance with a 69-58 victory Thursday night at the Bren Events Center.

The win knocked the Anteaters (11-5, 3-1 in conference) out of a first-place tie with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (4-0 in the Big West), which visits UCI on Saturday. It also was the first UCI loss in eight home games this season and it halted a five-game winning streak.

UCSB (9-7, 3-1) overcame a season-worst 29 turnovers by stifling the hosts with defense and by connecting on 51% of the field-goal attempts they did get, 56% in the second half.

UCI mounted a pair of comebacks, first erasing a 19-8 lead then paring a 10-point deficit early in the second half to within 44-41 with 8:33 left in the game.

But UCSB which has now won nine straight against UCI, kept doing whatever it needed to tighten the upper half of the conference standings.

"I didn't think we were very good," UCI Coach Molly Goodenbour said. "I thought Santa Barbara did a very good job of being prepared for us and they took us out of our offensive rhythm. I thought we were a little more tentative on the offensive end than we have been."

UCI, which went three for its first 23 from the field, went a stretch of 14:19 in the first half with only one field goal, incurring a 19-8 deficit.

But the reserve tandem of juniors Tayler Champion and Kassandra McCalister exploded to account for an 11-0 UCI run in just 1:48 to knot the score with 2:25 left in before intermission.

Champion had two three-pointers and a traditional three-point play during the burst, which also included a three-point play by McCalister. Champion and McCalister, both first-year Anteaters after transferring from Oregon State, finished with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Champion, whose previous single-game best was eight points, was five of seven from the field, including three of four from three-point range. Her only two misses were both desperation heaves after receiving a pass before the 30-second shot clock went off.

McCalister matched her season-high scoring output and added a team-high six steals.

"[Champion and McCalister] were the only two who came out with a real offensive assertiveness," Goodenbour said. "I thought everyone else was kind of on their heels; a bit passive."

UCI stars Mikah Maly-Karros and Jade Smith-Williams, the first two Big West Player of the Week honorees this season, were virtually shut down by the Gauchos.

Maly-Karros had a scoreless first half, was held without a field goal for nearly 30 minutes, and finished with nine points on three-of-eight shooting from the field. She shared the team rebounding lead with seven, after averaging a double-double in her first 15 games.

Smith-Williams was two of 10 from the field on her way to seven points. She paced UCI with five assists.

"One thing we did really well was sort of lock up Maly-Karros and Smith-Williams, who do a tremendous job of scoring and controlling the game," UCSB Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.

UCI finished shooting 32.8% from the field, had 17 turnovers, and was bested, 44-29, on the boards to produce its lowest scoring total at home this season, just one point shy of its season-worst overall.

"[The Gauchos] are a good team and I think we need to get over a bit of a mental hump as well against them," Goodenbour said. " I think we're capable of competing with and beating them, but not how we played tonight.

"The two kids who played really well for us are two kids who never played against [UCSB] before," Goodenbour said. "Sometimes, it's a matter of trying too hard when you want something and I think that probably impacted us a little bit."

Junior guard Emilie Johnson had 14 of her game-high 20 points in the second half and freshman guard Emily Zornig had a career-high 17 points off the bench for UCSB.

Zornig, out of Santa Margarita High, was seven of nine from the field in 21 minutes and continually hurt UCI with driving layups and pull-up jumpers.

Big West Conference

UC Santa Barbara 69, UC Irvine 58

UCSB – Underwood 9, Adrian 3, Valentine 8, E. Johnson 20, Aguirre 6, Zornig 17, Nesbit 4, M. Johnson 2.

3-pt. goals – E. Johnson 4, Zornig 1.

Fouled out – None.

Technicals – None.

UCI – Maly-Karros 9, Belen 6, White 4, Marshall 0, Smith-Williams 7, Champion 15, McCalister 14, Meggs 3.

3-pt. goals – Champion 3, McCalister 1, Smith-Williams 1, Maly-Karros 1, Meggs 1.

Fouled out – Smith-Williams.

Technicals – None.

Halftime – UCSB, 25-22.

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