IRVINE — It was a storybook senior night for two UC Irvine women's basketball players Saturday as Kiara Belen provided the opening act while Kassandra McCalister gave a blockbuster performance as the headliner.
Belen delivered a rousing rendition of the national anthem just before tipoff of a 72-65 Big West Conference victory against visiting UC Santa Barbara.
UCI's sweep of UCSB in two conference games this season is the first such sweep since the 1987-88 season.
McCalister, who has carried much of the load all season, produced a career-high 36 points, including nine straight to spark a 12-0 run in the final moments to secure a win that might have otherwise slipped away.
UCI (12-15, 8-6 in conference), which used a 9-0 run early in the second half to up a seven-point halftime lead to 48-35, had a 53-41 advantage with 11:59 left in the game.
But using a frenetic full-court press, the Gauchos (11-14, 5-7) rallied to take a 58-57 lead with 4:43 left.
It was then that UCI Coach Molly Goodenbour, who has asked McCalister to take over the point-guard role in her final collegiate season, asked the Oregon State transfer to come through once again.
"Kassandra," Goodenbour said when asked how her team was able to turn around a demoralizing Santa Barbara surge. "We challenged Kassandra again by saying it would be a shame if we lost this game. We needed her to make better decisions and toughen up. I said 'I know you're tired, but we need you to focus through the end of this.' And she did. She got the ball inbounds [against the pressure] right away and made a three-point shot. Then she got fouled on the next play. She's kind of a warrior this year and I'm glad she's playing so well."
McCalister's three-pointer from the right wing with 4:32 left gave UCI the lead for good. She made three of four free throws during the next two UCI possessions before netting a step-back three-pointer from the right wing with 2:50 left to produce a 66-58 advantage.
Sophomore Cheyenne Cathey drained a three-pointer after a Santa Barbara turnover and the hosts had an insurmountable 11-point bulge with 2:58 to play.
Five of McCalister's eight field goals were three-pointers and the 5-foot-9 overachiever was 15 of 16 from the foul line to produce exactly half of her team's scoring output. She added five rebounds, five assists and three steals while committing four turnovers in 39 minutes. She missed the final minute after a cramp in her right lower leg felled her near the UCI bench.
Belen had three points, three assists, two rebounds and one steal to go with a melodic memory that will surely last a lifetime.
"She sings [the anthem] every year," Goodenbour said. "She's got a great voice."
Junior guard Anete Klintsone was four for six from three-point range to chip in 14 points for UCI, which moved into fourth place in the Big West with two regular-season conference games remaining.
UCI visits last-place Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, then completes its regular season on March 1 at eighth-place UC Riverside.
The top four finishers host a first-round game in the conference tournament that begins March 6.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 72, UC Santa Barbara 65
UCSB – Underwood 10, Adrian 9, Tilleman 16, Emilie Johnson 5, Mason 2, Aguirre 7, Nesbit 6, Zornig 6, Luna-Castro 4.
3-pt. goals – Adrian 3, Zornig 2, Johnson 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – Mason 1.
UCI – Onogomuho 5, Marshall 5, McCalister 36, Klintsone 14, Belen 3, Cathey 6, Meggs 3.
3-pt. goals – McCalister 5, Klintsone 4, Cathey 2, Meggs 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – 39-32, UCI.